Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack’s short life ended after he ran away from residential school in 1966.
Chanie was born in 1954 and grew up in Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls Reserve in northern Ontario. He was taken the the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School, run by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church of Canada and funded by the federal government, at the age of nine. After three years there, near the end of October, he decided with three other boys in the school to slip away unseen, to travel by foot home to his father. According to a Maclean’s story written in 1967, nine other children ran away on the same day, all to be caught within 24 hours.
The two boys Chanie was with, brothers, made their way to their uncle’s home but Chanie continued on alone.
“All Charlie had was a common windbreaker. And during those 36 hours that Charlie walked, there were snow squalls and freezing rain. The temperature was between 20 and 30 degrees [approximately -1 to -7 Celsius]. It is not hard to imagine the hopelessness of his thoughts… Charlie must have fallen several times because bruises were found later on his shins, forehead and over his left eye. And then at some point on Saturday night, Charlie fell backward in a faint and never got up again.”
Chanie’s body was later transported by plane, along with his sisters who also attended Cecilia Jeffrey School and his mother who was in Sioux Lookout for medical tests, back to his father in Ogoki because the only way to get to the remote community was by air.
Chanie’s death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in the residential school system and his moving story was recently made into a Canadian Heritage Minute, released just ahead of National Aboriginal Day this year.
Gord Downie was introduced to Chanie’s life and death by the Maclean’s magazine article “The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack” and was inspired to create a concept album, Secret Path, about Chanie’s story.