Following The Secret Path

“I am nothing, I am no one, because I am an Indian child.” These words hit everyone in the audience, revealing the innermost thoughts of a residential school survivor.

Those words spoken by Mary Kelly, who read a short essay about her time in residential school to bring awareness to the dark past of Canada.

This past is already being brought to light, in part because of The Secret Path.

The Secret Path – Continuing the Walk was an event at the Regent Theatre on October 21.

This event was held by the Bawaajigewen Community Circle in partnership with the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack fund.

The fund was started in 2016, after Gord Downie was told about Chanie Wenjack, an Indian child who escaped the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 1966. He followed train tracks in hopes of finding his home, not knowing it was 400 miles away. He died October 22, 1966.

This story inspired Downie to write poems about Wenjack’s journey. The poems were turned into songs then into a film.

Before arriving in the theatre to watch the event, each guest took part in a smudging outside. Sage filled the cold night air and burned the inside of noses.

A small tobacco pouch was also offered to each guest, to be returned at the end of the event and burned in a sacred fire.

There was no shortage of smiling faces inside the theatre, everyone seemed to know everyone.

While being seated, some guests were given Kleenex in preparation for the emotions they could experience during the film. They were encouraged to give them back after the film to be burned in a sacred fire with the tobacco.

The event was hosted by Cheri Maracle, a Mohawk actress and singer. She made slight jokes throughout the evening, which sent quiet laughter throughout the crowd.

Dr. Elder Shirley Williams gave the opening prayer, spoken in Anishinaaemowin. It seemed clear not many people knew what she was saying, but the acknowledgement of prayer knows no language.

“Tears are O.K, tears are healing, we should not be ashamed,” Williams said before the event continued.

Maracle performed a women’s honour song. A drum circle led by First Nations elders and a tribute to Downie by Jeremy Hoyle followed.

The animated film lit up the screen.

Wenjack walks along the railroad tracks, unsure of his direction but certain of his destination. Each song represents a different memory to Wenjack, constantly tying in his need to get home or just to get away from residential school.

He sees an image of his father often, who glows a soft yellow while Wenjack is pictured pure white, implying perhaps that Wenjack is drained, not whole.

Another constant is a raven who follows him, whether in a tree or on the tracks. The bird caws but Wenjack does not pay it much mind.

At the end of the film, Wenjack lies down and sees his father again, who welcomes him with open arms. Wenjack then realizes he has left his body and has died. The frame pans to his eyes and zooms out to reveal the raven’s eye.

Sniffles are heard. Until that moment the crowd was sombre to the horrors they watched on film, perhaps not realizing the struggle of Indian children in residential schools.

A healing song is performed by the drummers again, the beat can be felt in everyone’s ears and hearts.

Intermission meant a long line to the silent auction tables, an area at capacity for much of the 30-minute break.

Each table had various baskets, but the tables with Indigenous artwork, jewellery and sculptures were the most crowded.

After intermission there was a short panel of those who had been touched by residential schools.

Dr. Elder Shirley Williams, Elder Bernard Nelson, Mary Kelly, and Mary George, a second-generation residential school survivor each shared their story, talking about the demons they faced and emotions they overcame.

“Is it because they found out you’re Indian?” George says her mother would ask her this if she ever did badly in school. She added her mother was always trying to bring their community together, in part because of her residential school past.

Healing, such a strong theme of the evening from the smudge to the Kleenex, was felt throughout the theatre.

A travelling song was drummed while many event-goers left the theatre, sending people “in a good way”.

Mary Kelly says laughter got her through the toughest memories of her time in residential schools. As the audience clapped, she added she calls herself a survivor. The applause got louder.