“The First of the Unplucked Gems” – Notes on Nationhood & Music, Canada & The Hip, Part Six

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Weeks after the Kingston show, in early September of two thousand and sixteen, Gord Downie announced his next, multimedia, project entitled Secret Path, done in collaboration with the Canadian comic book artist Jeff Lemire and released on October eighteenth. It consists of a ten-song album accompanied by a comic book and an animated film (broadcast on CBC on October twenty-fifth), and it focuses on the story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve year old Anishinaabe boy who died from cold and starvation while walking, running home – the home that was some six hundred kilometres away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School near Kenora, Ontario, from which he ran away.

On Secret Path, Downie trades The Hip’s lyrical and musical complexity for a sparse and direct composition that sombrely presents visual snippets of Chanie’s brief life structured around his attempt to return to his Ogoki Post home along a section of the Canadian National Railway. This composition is strikingly mirrored by Lemire’s graphic art – simple, cartoonish, representing wispy bodies outlined in black ink and set against stark white and greyish-blue watercolour backgrounds. From Sweet Tooth through Trillium to Secret Path, Lemire’s bodies are gentle and frail, effectively echoing the melancholy of Chanie’s story in both its fond memories/flashbacks of home and in its scared, lonely existence in the residential school and on the dangerous path homeward.

This sparse composition reaches its apotheosis in the final song, “Here,” which is accompanied by Lemire’s four-panel depiction of a dying Chanie that in each subsequent panel zooms in closer and closer on his frail, shaking body:

I feel
Here, here and here
I hurt
Here, here and here
I lived
Here, here and here
I died
Here, here and here
You sign
Here, here and here
Here
Here, here and here
Here
Here, here and here.

The day Chanie ran away with two of his friends, nine other children also escaped Cecilia Jeffrey. In total, one hundred and thirty residential schools operated in Canada (excluding Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, which had no residential schools) between the eighteen-forties, when the first of them opened, and nineteen-ninety six, when the last of them closed. During those years, around one hundred and fifty thousand First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children were taken from their homes and placed into these schools. A number of their and their families’ tragic stories were recently collected and published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which conducted its research and interviewed the victims of the residential school system between June of two-thousand and eight and December of two-thousand and fifteen.

In his statement on the Secret Path website, Downie echoes his Kingston show call by quoting Murray Sinclair, a Canadian Senator and former judge, and the Commission’s Chair, who said the following about the history of Canada’s relationship with its indigenous populations:

This is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem. Because at the same time that aboriginal people were being demeaned in the schools and their culture and language were being taken away from them and they were being told that they were inferior, they were pagans, that they were heathens and savages and that they were unworthy of being respected – that very same message was being given to the non-aboriginal children in the public schools as well. … They need to know that history includes them.

To this, “We are not the country we thought we were,” Downie adds sombrely, “We are all accountable.”

On Secret Path, Downie draws our attention to this accountability by giving voice to Chanie, imagining a point of view whose power emerges from a child’s unadorned narration and his reactions to horrifying circumstances that lead to a tragedy the knowledge of which the (Canadian) reader cannot un-know: I’m not gonna stop / I’m just catching my breath / They’re not gonna stop / Please, just let me catch my breath. Or later, in the same song, entitled “Stranger”: That is not my dad / My dad is not a wild man. Occasionally, these devastatingly simple observations are interrupted by an accusation delivered, in my mind, in the vein of “I’m kinda dumb and so are you.” In “Son,” assuming a quasi-external vantage point, Downie focuses the lens on us, the accountable, speaking through Chanie’s memory or vision of his father: You know they just can’t resists / No man could make them feel nervous / And they put zero into it / And their country doesn’t exist. In the comic book, opposite these lyrics, in a full-page panel, Chanie’s anxious face gazes into nothingness, his breath escaping him, steam billowing out of his mouth.

Weaving a trenchant critique into an echoing moment of national celebration – a critique as powerful as and mirrored by his emotional, tearful cries during the encore performance of “Grace, Too” that stunned hundreds, thousands, millions of Canadians into a unified, despairing silence – Downie concludes: “I have always wondered why, even as a kid, I never thought of Canada as a country…. The next hundred years are going to be painful as we come to know Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – but only when we do can we truly call ourselves, ‘Canada.’”

***

And, so, there it is: a dumb, stubborn noun, the first of the unplucked gems, both perfectly transparent and aloofly opaque, calling us to live up to its impenetrable, contestable, obvious meanings – meanings both sacred and profane. We want it – here, there, everywhere – to embody noble, lofty meanings; we want it to mean something we can be proud of, we can stand behind; but also, shield- and bayonet-like, something we can push in front of us in moments of crisis, of danger, of fear. So, wild dogs over a steakbone, we tend to lunge at each other’s throats believing meaning can be only one, self-consistent, constant. And yes, yes, there is some truth to that – and some lunging, some of the time is – perhaps, perhaps – necessary: “The tree of liberty…” and all that.

And yet.

And yet, it would be just a little less painful, we’d breathe just a little easier, if we understood that it – the dumb, stubborn noun – is also a machine, that it has complex, moving parts that, at times, work predictably, cohesively, together and, at times, produce and enfold conflicting, unpredictable movements and functions. So, the present never negates the past, but it can, in all its complexity and contradictions, enfold it, subsume it, sublate it – make it useful, productive, good.

Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes we say “Canada,” and we think of nobility of war and the forced unity of early nineteenth or twentieth century struggle, and we generate the beautiful lull and the dangerous tug and we get to feel small / from high up above. And after a glimpse / over the top / the rest of the world / becomes a gift shop. And from this shiny, tawdry, gift shop we – self-confident, righteous, secure in the belief that today is better for sacrifices of yesterday – select elements from which we can build a narrative that, more often than not, tends to negate past mistakes, injustices, in the service of justifying today and imagining it as a noble, nobler present.

And sometimes.

And sometimes, we say “Canada” and we pause.

And then we climb a tree / and maybe then we talk / or sit silently / and listen to our thoughts. With illusions of someday / cast in golden light, we consider how we can understand the conflicts of the past to shine a light on current struggles, current problems, current injustices. We use yesterdays not to justify today, but to imagine better tomorrows. Then, today becomes a hornet that stings us / and we have a feverish dream / with revenge and doubt so tonight, we smoke them out: the sting of the past ought to wake us from today’s slumbers in the interest of a better, more just future.

***

At the end of the concert – around eleven, eleven-thirty – we shook, folded, bagged our orange towel and cleaned the dirt, branches off of our calves and feet.

Unhurriedly, silently, the crowd rose and, lit by the moon and the street lights, dispersed.

We moved with it, at times overtaking bodies slowed by the weight of age, of sleeping, drooping children.

Jeff and a few others packed away the leftover pop and chips and the green metal case into which they placed the money earmarked for the fire preparedness and prevention fund; they folded up the plastic-covered table and a few chairs. The lights on the stage went out. This time, there was no “Someone” we counted on to get them re-lit.

People walked off – north, south, east, west – along Ottawa’s winding roads. Some walked up to their cars, carefully placing, helping their children inside, then getting in themselves, stretching, buckling up, checking the side, rear view mirrors.

On the short walk to our car, a fat raccoon waddled across the road in front of us.

The streets around Parkdale Park cleared and a warm, thick silence blanketed the city.

On the drive home, moving east along Wellington, then Somerset Street, listening to “Bobcaygeon,” both my wife and I cried. And smiled, laughed at each other.

I turned off the radio.

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” she said.

No dress rehearsal, this is our life.

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