Gord Downie may have sung his last bit of Canadiana as front man and lyricist for the Tragically Hip, but a new solo offering will help spread the devastating story of this country’s Indian residential schools long into the future.

Mr. Downie, who shocked Canadians with the news in May that he suffers from an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma, is releasing a new album and graphic novel about a young First Nations boy who died a half century ago after running away from one of the schools.

All of the proceeds from the multimedia project, called Secret Path, will support the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba, which was created to preserve the memory of what happened at the institutions and the legacy of a system that ripped indigenous children from their families.

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Mr. Downie was in the Marten Falls First Nation, a remote Ontario fly-in reserve 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, on Thursday to visit with the family of 12-year-old Charlie (Chanie) Wenjack, whose body was found beside a railway track in 1966.

Charlie, already a frail child, collapsed from exposure and hunger while trying to make it back to Marten Falls from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora in October. He was wearing nothing but thin cotton clothing when he set out on journey of hundreds of kilometres through dense bush and he did not know the way home. His story has been told on Heritage Minutes.

Murray Sinclair, now a senator, led a commission that spent several years recording the experience of survivors of the residential schools, which operated for more than a century before the last one closed in 1996. That inquiry found, among other things, that the institutions funded by the federal government and operated by churches were aimed at cultural genocide.

“I am trying in this small way to help spread what Murray Sinclair said: ‘This is not an aboriginal problem; this is a Canadian problem,’” Mr. Downie, who was not available for media interviews, said in a statement.

The money from the new album and book will be used to help the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation identify some of children who died at the schools and were buried in unmarked graves. It will also be used to commemorate their lives and, in some cases, return them to their home communities.

Charlie’s body was returned to Marten Falls in a casket shortly after it was discovered. His angry and grieving father buried him in a tiny cemetery on the north shore of the Albany River. But many other children simply never came home.

Alvin Fiddler, the Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, was with Mr. Downie as visited he the home of Charlie’s sister, Pearl Achneepineskum.

“It’s historic, in many ways,” Mr. Fiddler said of Mr. Downie’s travel to Northern Ontario and decision to commemorate the boy who died alone so many years ago. “The money and funds are secondary. Just the fact that he is taking the time and the energy to come up here and the significance of his visit to the family is quite extraordinary.”

Mr. Downie signalled his intention to highlight the tragedy of the residential schools during the final Tragically Hip concert in Kingston on Aug. 20, when he praised the efforts of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to improve the lives of Canada’s indigenous people.

“He cares about the people way up north that we were trained our entire lives to ignore,” the musician told the crowd and the millions of others who were watching on television.

Mr. Downie told Mr. Trudeau, who was in the audience for the poignant event, that it is time to “get ’er done” and address Canada’s broken relationship with indigenous people. “What’s going on up there ain’t good. It may be worse than it’s ever been,” he said.

His spare and haunting song about Charlie Wenjack speaks to the boy who is “on a secret path, the one that nobody knows …”

The donation to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is very generous, said David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba.

“Having the National Centre here has been important and to have Gord Downie make this commitment is amazing,” Mr. Barnard said. “Hearing stories of the survivors of the residential schools, these stories are horrific,” he said, “and Gord Downie’s statement that we didn’t know what kind of a country we were, and we’re learning it, and we want it to be different … is something that we are well aligned with.”

Gloria Galloway
OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Sep. 09, 2016 6:30AM EDT
Last updated Friday, Sep. 09, 2016 9:22AM EDT