Haunting ‘Secret Path’ Tells Tragic Indigenous History Through Art and Music

In 1966, an indigenous Canadian boy named Chanie Wenjack ran away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. He attempted a 400-mile walk home along the railroad through freezing weather, without knowing if he was even going the right way.

Through Chanie’s journey, Secret Path — an innovative combination of music and graphic novel available on Amazon as a paperback/MP3 download —  illuminates a darker part of North American twentieth-century history. Gord Downie of Ontario band The Tragically Hip wrote the words and music, while fellow Canadian and breakout comic book star Jeff Lemire drew the sequential art.

The first time I experienced Secret Path, I read the graphic novel with the music on in the background. The book is short enough to read within the album’s 41-minute running time, and is split into sections by song, so it’s easy enough to take this approach. Taken together, the music and art flow together well, with the images enhancing the words sung by Downie and the mostly acoustic folk rock bringing out the emotions in Lemire’s expressive character-work.

Since then, I have listened to the album quite a few times on its own. The music definitely can stand on its own. With the additional talent of Dave Hamelin from The Stills (another Canadian favorite of mine), Downie’s album carries the listener through the emotional highs and lows of Chanie’s walk, effortlessly evoking images of the boy’s tragic walk.

And as I listened, I found myself flashing back to the beautiful artwork by Lemire. I’ve been a fan of Jeff for some time — especially his more indie work like The Underwater Welder and Essex County, but also some of his writing credits for DC Comics including Animal Man. Lemire has a unique art style that I recall actually put me off the first time I laid eyes on it. But when I pushed ahead anyway, Lemire’s haunting compositions transported me to another world. From the first page of Secret Path, Lemire makes readers feel instantly sympathetic to Chanie’s plight. And he leaves us angry with the country that let such tragedies occur.

Angry, perhaps. But also glad that these fine creators have exposed this hidden history through such accessible storytelling. It’s beyond cool to see a project with such important purpose come together into an artistic masterpiece. What’s more, proceeds from the project will be donated to The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

So don’t wait — take the Secret Path. It’s a road worth traveling.

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