Walk for Wenjack: Revisiting a family’s tragic loss with respect, compassion and hope

Written and photos by Darlene MacGillivray, Executive Director, Kenora and Lake of the Woods Regional Community Foundation.

On the weekend of November 19 and 20, 2016, I was among a group of 40 Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals, who participated in a 30 km walk, from the site of the former Cecilia Jeffries Indian Residential School in Kenora Ontario, north to the hamlet of Redditt.

The walk was to honour the short life of a beautiful young boy named Chanie Wenjack, who at 12-years-old ran away from the school in late October 1966. Chanie was trying to find his way home to his family in Ogoki Post, Ontario. He did not understand that his family lived over 600 km away. He perished from hypothermia and hunger, exhausted and alone, after having walked 30 km to Redditt and a further 30 km, along the CN railway tracks.

As the mother of three dearly loved sons, I was horrified and saddened to learn about Chanie’s struggle and death. I first heard about his story when I watched “The Secret Path”, a multi–media project developed by Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip and shown at their concerts and on CBC Television last October to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Chanie’s death. I told my boys that I was going to do something for Chanie, although at the time I didn’t know what it was. I knew that if someone had come to take my children away, I don’t know how I would have survived.

In early November, Grand Council Treaty Three in Kenora announced that they would be hosting a walk to honour Chanie’s memory. Along with four dedicated fans of Gord Downie and The Hip from Southern Ontario (Jason, Rob, Terri and Stacy). Grand Council Treaty Three would be retracing Chanie’s steps from Kenora to the rail line in Redditt. Mike Downie would also be joining the group, as his brother Gord was battling terminal brain cancer and could not make the trip. The event would officially be known as the Courage for Gord – Walk for Wenjack. I was determined to participate, but wanting to inquire first if my participation would be welcome. I was quickly assured that it was.

The emotional opening ceremonies were held at the former site of the Residential School, steps away from a large monument bearing the words “In Honour of All the Children”. Remarks of welcome and encouragement were spoken by many Indigenous elders, leaders and survivors of the Indian Residential School System in the Kenora Region, including Grand Chief Francis Kavanaugh, Charles Copenace and Larry Henry. I listened to their contributions with great sadness. Four generations of Chanie’s family had travelled to the site to complete the walk, including his three sisters Pearl, Daisy and Eveline. Pearl thanked everyone for being there and told us that her family had waited 50 years for this day to occur. I was humbled by their courage and resiliency in attending the event. Pearl even sang a special song of Reconciliation for everyone just before we began the walk. Her voice was strong and clear. I noticed that I was not the only one fighting back tears.

The day was bright and cold as we set out around 10:30 a.m. There were several small children in our group, as well as an 11-year-old boy, brought along by his father to learn about Chanie’s story. We were very fortunate that staff from Grand Council Treaty Three provided the walkers with tasty snacks and hot beverages at each 5 km mark. We even had access to one indoor washroom, which was very nice. Joel Clemmons had joined the group from Southern Ontario as the official photographer.

For every kilometer we walked, Joel walked three as he climbed rock cut hills and ran along beside us to get the best shots. The lead walkers – Jason, Rob, Terri and Stacy were out front and carried the banner with the Wenjack family close behind. The rest of us followed at a comfortable pace. At various rest spots several walkers sang and drummed special spiritual songs which provided encouragement and were enjoyed by all. I didn’t know if I should feel happiness or sadness to be participating in the walk, mindful that we were retracing the steps of a frightened and hungry little boy that would ultimately lead to a tragedy. I think most of us experienced many different emotions throughout the day. I appreciated the kindness and caring shown by all the walkers to each other.

Late in the afternoon the decision was made out of safety concerns to end the walk in the daylight and to resume at the same location the next morning.

We felt eager to press on and reach our destination. This would signify the end of our journey yet it also represented the beginning of Chanie’s last few anguished days. By late morning, we had reached the tracks. The lead walkers placed a beautiful painting of Chanie’s silhouette on a wooden background with the words “WENJACK” and his year of birth and year of death beside the rail line. We respectfully made an offering of tobacco and then paid our respects. It was certainly an emotional moment for all of us, but especially for the Wenjack family who had waited so long to experience an act of remembrance.

We gathered together one last time at the Seven Generations Educational Institute in Kenora for a hot lunch and the closing ceremonies. The Secret Path was shown as we ate. Pearl and her sister Daisy thanked everyone for participating and told us what loving parents they had and how they did nothing wrong to have their children taken from them. Pearl encouraged us to support each other to ensure that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people stand together and offer hope to each other for the future. I felt it was a privilege to tell the sisters that I participated in the walk to honour Chanie’s memory and the Wenjack family and to be thankful for the lives of my three boys. I hope that we can remember Chanie’s life each year, as well as all the children who did not return home from Indian Residential School. I hope to participate in future walks and I encourage all Canadians to consider participating as well.

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Opening blessing by elder and Residential School Survivor Charles Copenace – Mike Downie is to his right and lead walkers to his left

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A song of courage for the walkers by Bear Standing Tall and Billy Boucha

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Hope and truth

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4 Generations of the Wenjack Family

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Stacy Barker

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Lead walkers and their official photographer as we arrive in the hamlet of Reddit – 30 km from Kenora

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Original swing set at the local Residential School

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Memorial stone

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