Joseph Boyden highlights tragic true tale of Chanie Wenjack in new novella
Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, October 21, 2016 12:06PM EDT
TORONTO -- Fifty years since the untimely death of Chanie Wenjack, Joseph Boyden is part of a collective of Canadian artists bringing renewed attention to the indigenous boy's tragic story.
The acclaimed author and his friend, Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, first learned of Chanie's story from Downie's brother, Mike. He directed them to a 1967 Maclean's article by Ian Adams called "The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack." Boyden was also aware of the song "Charlie Wenjack" by the late aboriginal singer and activist Willie Dunn.
Chanie was forcibly removed from his family home in the northern Ontario community of Ogoki Post and sent to the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, some 600 kilometres away. He eventually fled but died trying to find his way home. His body was discovered along railroad tracks. Chanie was only 12.
His death led to the first public inquiry into residential schools in Canada. The last of those institutions was shuttered in 1996.
"In so many ways, he's symbolic of the true tragedy of the residential school system. He puts a face to it, and we all recognize that," Boyden said in a recent interview.
"I think he spoke to us in all different ways."
Downie translated a collection of poems into music with his latest solo project, "Secret Path." The 10-track album is accompanied by a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire and an animated film.
In "Wenjack" (Hamish Hamilton), Boyden presents a fictional retelling of the young Ojibwe boy's story. Chanie is followed by Manitous, or spirits of the forest, which provide commentary as well as a form of comfort on his attempted journey home.
"Wenjack" features illustrations by Cree artist Kent Monkman depicting the various Manitous, which include an owl, mouse, pike and wood tick.
"The animals start showing up and telling the bigger story and Chanie's telling his story," said Boyden. "I did not plan for that book to come out that way, but I felt like I was channelling something important."
Boyden said he has spoken on the phone with Pearl Achneepineskum, Chanie's sister, and wanted to ensure he had her blessing to proceed with the project. His author's note is accompanied by the only known existing photo of Chanie, sporting a shy smile.
Boyden said he was also asked by electronic music group A Tribe Called Red to contribute a few spoken word tracks on Chanie, while Metis filmmaker Terril Calder has created a stop-motion animated film.
"It was really this kind of interesting collaboration where we didn't really converse with each other. All of these different artists went to their places all with the understanding that on Oct. 18, let's release it to the world."
Clocking in just under 100 pages, the "Wenjack" novella is Boyden's shortest work but one that had a profound impact on the award-winning author, who said he cried while writing the end of the book.
"Writing this made me fall in love with writing again in so many ways -- it really did," he said.
"It was exhausting to write, but it was also kind of a joyful experience. I think there's hope in this story. Chanie gets to breathe again, but in a different way. He gets to have his story told. He doesn't want to be forgotten. He wants to be around.
"I could sense that about him, you know? Maybe this is how he gets to do it -- all of these different artists breathing life into it."