Gord Downie’s Secret Path at Roy Thomson Hall was, well, perfect

More than a concert, the event was a pointed appeal to Canadians to embrace our sullied history

GORD DOWNIE’S SECRET PATH at Roy Thomson Hall, Friday, October 21. Rating: NNNNN

By the end of the Secret Path concert, when the Wenjack family were given a chance to speak, they expressed tremendous gratitude to Gord Downie’s family for giving their lost relative, Chanie Wenjack, something close to a new life. The two families, around 30 strong, stood onstage together, flanked by others Downie had rallied to wake people up and maybe even change them a little bit.

It was a powerful event. Gord’s brother Mike Downie was a loose, hyperbolic master of ceremonies, promising all of us from the get-go that the historically significant occasion was another step in the urgent process of reconciliation for families destroyed by residential schools like the one 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack died trying to flee in 1966. 

Chanie’s story was starkly, artfully animated by illustrator Jeff Lemire and director Justin Stephenson. A film was screened in real time above Downie and his band – Kevin Drew, Dave Hamelin and Charles Spearin of Broken Social Scene, Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies and Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers – essentially live-scored it, playing all 10 songs from Downie’s fifth solo record, Secret Path.

They performed majestically. Downie, terminally ill with brain cancer, paced the stage, pranced gently and sang powerfully, employing his distinctively dynamic range as a singer. Sang his ass off is what he did.

“Applause will get harder, and that’s okay,” Downie said after a few songs. The room kind of tittered uncertainly. “Okay?” he asked, and some in the room cheered in spite of the weight of what our senses and emotional cores were being exposed to.

As a story and a concert, Secret Path came together as a poignant, sad, infuriating, poetic, moving and lovely expression for the Wenjacks. The many Canadians who don’t really know our nation’s complete history were not judged or branded as wilfully ignorant.

The Downie brothers – Gord, Mike and Patrick – acknowledge that stories like Wenjack’s were new to them when they came upon a 50-year-old article in Maclean’s by Ian Adams (who took a bow) some three years ago. It spurred them to tell it and to make sure Canadians know their true history. The hope is also that children learn to unpack its meaning in classrooms across the country. According to Mike Downie, based on meetings he’s had with Indigenous educators, that will begin in 2017.

Secret Path wasn’t meant to be just another concert. While it was an excellent, excellent concert, even more than that, it was a pointed appeal to Canadians to accept our sullied history for what it is, scrutinize why this information wasn’t disseminated the way it should’ve been and together try to make it right. We all (hopefully) left that room recognizing that a late first step is better than no step at all. 

music@nowtoronto.com | @vishkhanna

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