Apparently many schoolchildren in Canada are being taught about the horror of Indian residential schools through the books Secret Path, by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire; and Wenjack, by Joseph Boyden. Both are about Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibway boy who ran away from school in Kenora in 1966 and died in the bitter cold supposedly trying to walk home—600 miles away. It has become the emblematic narrative about the residential schools. It is even the subject of one of those “Heritage Minutes.”
Peter Shawn Taylor has just pointed out in the National Post that most details of the story are fiction. It seems to have been mostly invented to slander the residential schools (and the Catholic Church). And most of this upcoming generation will probably just assume it is all true.
To being with, Chanie Wenjack was not a student at a residential school. He attended a public school. Yet Downie, Boyden, and the Heritage minute all make it a residential school, and even all make it Catholic. That’s a pretty major fabrication.
All three also claim Chanie was running away from school because he was being sexually abused. By the staff. There is no evidence of this. According to witnesses, he just said he was lonely.
It is a sad thing that Chanie Wenjack died. But who is at fault?
To begin with, and obviously, Chanie Wenjack is at fault. He walked off without planning anything, wearing light summer clothes in Northern Ontario in late October. Having lived his entire life in Northern Ontario, he must have known better. He set out for home not knowing how to get there. How is that supposed to work? And he was in bad physical condition, frail, with a history of TB.
Looks, in sum, a lot like suicide. Which should not be surprising to us, in a 12-year-old aboriginal boy. We all know about Attawapiskat.
But Chanie was just a kid, you say. What about the adults in whose charge he was? Surely they bear responsibility? What about the school principal?
They say the school principal did what he could. In any case, you can’t blame “the whites” here. He was an aboriginal himself. Any such search, once the student has gotten a decent distance away, is going to depend on other adults spotting him and reporting his whereabouts.
Which certainly should have happened. Chanie spent his first four days or so with an aboriginal family. Yet they did not report him to the school or alert the authorities. When Chanie said he was going to walk home, frail as he was, with no warm clothing, and no food, and not knowing the way, they just gave him a half-dozen matches and advised him to beg for food on the way. Which, apparently, he did not do.
Surely if Chanie was too young and stupid to realize this was all a bad idea, these adults had a responsibility to tell him it was, and stop him if necessary. They did not.
Neither the residential schools, whites, or the government, so far as we can tell, had anything to do with Chanie’s death. If he was done in by anyone, he was done in by fellow aboriginals. Apparently because they just did not care.
The most you could argue against the larger society is that, if he had not been sent to a school six hundred miles away from his home, he would not have felt so lonely, and he would have had a better shot at getting home. Maybe. But then, it seems pretty improbable that he really thought he could walk home.
And if he made it home? Would he have been better off?
This still looks a lot like suicide, and we all know about Attawapiskat. Home may have been where his problems began.