I’ve written about this before, but this year, Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip fame has had an impact in my classroom.
Long story short, The Hip is largely considered to be Canada’s official band. Their songs, with Downie’s lyrics, are frequently poetic ruminations on our country and identity. In May of last year, Downie revealed that he had terminal brain cancer. The Hip embarked on what was expected to be their final tour.
During prime time of the Olympics, CBC, our national broadcaster chose instead to air the final show of that tour. With the nation gathered to watch, our Prime Minister in attendance, Downie took a moment to address issues related to First Nations people in our country, and the Truth & Reconciliation movement, aimed at acknowledging and healing the legacy of residential schools in Canada. The country listened.
And, shortly after that concert, Downie revealed that he had a solo album coming out, called Secret Path. In actuality, it was much more than an album. There would be a graphic novel, illustrated by Jeff Lemire, accompanying the novel, as well as a film, that would also be aired on CBC.
Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack. In 1966, Chanie fled the residential school that he had been taken to, and attempted to walk the hundreds of kilometers, or miles, to his home. He didn’t make it. Woefully unprepared for the journey ahead of him, he froze to death. It was his story that first called attention to the deeply flawed residential school system.
Inspired by Chanie’s story as told in a 1967 article from Maclean’s magazine, Gord wrote poems telling Chanie’s story. These peoms became songs. He brought this to Lemire, who created the accompanying graphic novel. As well, the story was brought to others in the arts community, such as author Joseph Boyden, who wrote the novella Wenjack, also telling Chanie’s tale.
As a fan of Downie and Lemire’s work, this was a must buy for me. But as an English teacher, particularly one with a social justice bent, it was a gift. Here was one story, an important story of history and empathy being told in many different formats. When all was said and done, the following are the mediums in which I could have my students look at Chanie’s story:
- the original Maclean’s article from 1967, found online
- Secret Path, the album
- Secret Path, the graphic novel
- Secret Path, the film, animated with documentary elements
- Wenjack, the novella
- a Heritage Minute (these are short films that dramatize moments in Canadian history)
Like I said, a gift, looking at the same story, told through six different mediums. This was the basis for what I took to calling The Chanie Project.
I gave the students the academic tasks up front. We had a reflective response – a piece of academic writing where we discussed the effectivness of the mediums, assessing their ability to not just tell Chanie’s story, but to raise awareness and empathy around the issues of truth and reconciliation. Additonally, we had a creative response. As we read, and viewed, each student pulled words and phrases that resonated with them. Using Lemire’s visuals, we crafted pieces that combined found poetry and the artwork as an individual response.
We studied and discussed each piece in turn. As is standard practice in my room, we had class discussions after each bit of viewing or reading, and talked about the various elements of each piece. Chanie’s story is heavy, so we did take longer than I originally planned, simply to give us a break from it once in a while. We also, on a cold day much like Chanie’s last ones, we went for a walk. Chanie was following a railway to find his way home, and a set of train tracks runs right by our school. We walked in quiet contemplation, and discussed that experience too.
Gord Downie has called his work with Chanie’s story “the best thing I’ve ever done.” From my teacher perspective, he’s correct. His instinct to tell Chanie’s story, and to encourage others to do the same has enabled me to teach something that not only hits many of the outcomes in my curriculum, but also allows me to dig deep into a powerful and important story, to build empathy and understanding for a part of history that has impact for Canadians today. It has allowed me to honour a last wish of a man whose work has given me so much.
I am more than willing to share the material I used in doing this project. I am also curious about whether anyone else has a multimedia unit like this, many different tellings of the same story. Those kinds of things we need to share, because of what they allow us to do in our classrooms.
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