Gord Downie's legacy project, The Secret Path, tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old boy who died escaping from residential school in 1966. Downie, lead singer of Canadian band, the Tragically Hip was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2016 and died on October 17, 2017 at the age of 53. Through an examination of legacy, ethical capital, and transcendence, this essay explores the spiritual underpinnings that may have led Downie to create The Secret Path before interrogating notions of allyship and how the media perpetuated the dominant culture. Finally, the essay considers how Downie, aided by the media, acted as a "white saviour." The Secret Path, while well-intentioned, was misguided and potentially harmful to Indigenous people, particularly in terms of how the project and its creator were portrayed by journalists.
A terminal diagnosis often leads people to consider what kind of legacy they are leaving behind. Bequeathing a unique biographical accomplishment has become a social expectation, a cultural norm, and a personal and professional obligation (Williams et al. 880). The Tragically Hip has long been associated with patriotic flag-waving, but as Warner notes, "it has also been vocal about its criticisms of Canada, openly challenging its legacy and its actions." By 2012, as evidenced by their travelling to remote Fort Albany to play the Great Moon Gathering and the release of the song, "Goodnight Attawapiskat," the Hip's politics and commitment to social justice was becoming more overt (Sun). In an interview with CBC, Downie further asserted that Canada must "get rid of the Indian Act because it's racist" (Sun).
Following a diagnosis, there is almost always a shift to the existential (Griffith). As Kumta notes, humans are the only species aware of their transient existence and mortality (Kumta, p. 259). It is, writes Kumta, "the realization of death as the paramount reality of existence" that has guided social, cultural, religious, and spiritual responses towards death and dying (259). With the band's social justice history in mind, it is perhaps no surprise that Downie focused on Indigenous issues as he reflected upon his personal legacy.
The Secret Path, perhaps, was Downie's attempt to leave behind a legacy of ethical capital. Ethical capital "comprises a system of rules for living, derived from the wisdom of elders, lessons learned, and reproduced in day-to-day encounters" and often incorporates religious and spiritual guidance (Williams et al 882). It offers a way to leave behind a legacy of "right living" and as Williams et al. state, "creating and communicating ethical capital is also a way to turn away from one's mortality and move towards a life-affirming state of being" (882). Constructing an ethical legacy is considered a "psychosocial intervention that can diminish suffering for dying patients and moderate grief experiences for survivors" (Williams et al. 883). Downie notes in his artist's statement:
Further, many First Nations chiefs and artists have embraced Downie, notes Kloke, suggesting that "his legacy as this country's pop-poet chronicler won't include the easily digested notion of Canada." Since Downie understood that he had a large and receptive audience for his last words, construction of The Secret Path, was likely both a personal coping mechanism and a way to help his fan base process his death while also suggesting a method of "right living" to Canadians after his passing.
Similarly, The Secret Path, is Downie's transcendence. In the face of mortality, people often seek connection with an over-arching value, commitment or meaning and this connection often takes a religious or spiritual form (Collinson). The word spirituality itself, according to Collinson, concerns transcendence: something with the capacity to connect an individual human being to a significance and meaning that is greater than the individual ego. Speaking to Vice, Isadore Day, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief of Ontario observes, "In his own time of reflection about his own mortality [Downie] has drawn a line of truth about what's important," (Kloke). Corten and Doran argue that "the loss of a transcendental referent, most notably the fear of God, leaves individuals staring into the abyss of their own violence" (568). In such cases, there are three possible solutions: (1) return to rigid practices and the protection of an authority (fundamentalism); (2) infatuation with new forms of spirituality; (3) " invention of new integrative communal symbols by means of individual conversion" (Corten and Doran 568). Downie chose the third option, aiming to sell Canadians on reconciliation.
Unfortunately, though the deep spiritual needs that led to The Secret Path are clear, journalists were repeatedly tempted to appoint Downie an ally to Indigenous peoples without confirming whether or not he was, in fact, meeting the standard of what constitutes an ally. This ultimately generated a narrative that was more about Downie than Wenjack or Indigenous people more generally. For Wallace, being an ally means that non-Indigenous activists must understand that their "political, cultural and social standpoints and situated knowledge are located in the space of privileged status as settlers on Indigenous lands" (156). It is, therefore, necessary for allies to critically self-inspect the ways in which their own narratives, behaviours, and social structures are invisibly embedded in their identities and reproduce "a privileged status of dominance in our relationships with Indigenous peoples" (Wallace 156). According to Macfarlane, the repetition of "Canada" in Downie's artist statement stresses Canadian rather than Indigenous sovereignty (94). Moreover, an element of ownership is implied in "Canada's story" and "call[ing] ourselves 'Canada,'" suggesting that "the story is more about healing and reconciliation for Canadians than it is for Indigenous peoples" (Macfarlane 94). Indeed, Hayden King wrote, following the performance of The Secret Path, "It was proclaimed that we all just took our first giant step towards genuine reconciliation. For me, this reflected a sense of self-importance … the decision to determine and articulate what is and is not reconciliation belongs to survivors." Non-Indigenous activists must learn to self-critically share power with and move past the legacy of colonial thinking that continues to structure our relationships with Indigenous peoples (Wallace 157). There are many ways that Downie might have carried out this project so that he shared his star power with Indigenous people. For instance, by amplifying Indigenous voices instead of his own, by acknowledging the Indigenous artists who had previously told the Wenjack story, and importantly, by avoiding the use of the first-person in his narrative (including embodying and acting out Wenjack's last moments during a performance). In this way, Downie could have left a legacy of ethical capital and achieved transcendence without reproducing a relationship of dominance.
Often, the reporting on Gord Downie and The Secret Path called upon Indigenous voices to reproduce the dominant culture and ideology. Wallace contends that "there are stances and actions by non-Indigenous allies that are reproductive of colonial patterns and practices even in the terrain of solidarity" (163). This is reflected by the lack of criticism of Downie in the reportage. Writing for Vice, Joshua Kloke interviews several Indigenous artists about their position on Downie's activism, all of whom offer accolades. Was Kloke unable to find any Indigenous voices willing to speak to the problematic aspects of The Secret Path, or was this simply the more convenient story to tell about a dying man? According to Macfarlane, there is an important difference between the previous Indigenous tellings of the Wenjack story and Downie's: pain dominates Downie's version while hope and resistance dominate in the Indigenous tellings (98). This merits some comment in the reportage yet goes unaddressed. good point
In his overwrought eulogy to Downie, columnist Vinay Menon writes that the project was started "with the hope of starting a national conversation and furthering reconciliation." Menon, like Downie, fails to acknowledge that a national conversation had already been ongoing, and deeply penetrated the collective consciousness with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report in 2015. When a dissenting Indigenous voice does appear in the coverage, it is as an outlier, as Clayton Thomas-Müller is when he criticizes Downie's Order of Canada – both his being awarded the prize and his accepting it – to CBC Radio. Thomas-Müller is the only person quoted in the piece. Thomas-Müller also penned an opinion piece for CBC urging allies, including Downie, to let Indigenous people speak for themselves (Thomas-Müller). While the opinion piece ostensibly provides more fulsome reporting on the issue, it has the affect of positioning Thomas-Müller as the only Indigenous person who refuses to go along with the dominant ideology. Finally, coverage of Downie receiving the Indigenous name, "Man Who Walks Among the Stars" from the Assembly of First Nations treads dangerously close to Duncan McCue's 4Ds of how an Indigenous person makes the news - be drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead. An example occurs in Kristy Kirkup's piece for the Globe and Mail. Alongside a photo of Chief Perry Bellegarde in traditional dress, she notes that Downie was given an eagle feather, wrapped in a star blanket, and given moccasins and blankets (Kirkup), highlighting McCue's contention that Indigenous people in traditional regalia "fit a popular but superficial interpretation of Canadian multiculturalism." Taken together, these examples indicate that Canadian journalists desired more to perpetuate the dominant ideology than to change the narrative.
Downie's intentions may have been good, yet his telling of Wenjack's story positions him as a "white saviour." Kloke acknowledges that "an inherent risk with the Secret Path is Downie acting as a white saviour: it takes a popular, non-Indigenous singer to get people to tune into the problem." The white saviour commonly appears in film and voluntourism and is easily applied to Downie's legacy project. Hughey defines the trope as one "in which a white messianic character saves a lower or working-class, usually urban or isolated, non-white character from a sad fate" (Hughey 1). Similarly, in voluntourism, the white saviour appears when affluent Westerners travel to a developing country to improve a community, on the surface seeming noble and kind, but often having no beneficial long-term effect on the community (Sun). Sun writes that voluntourists are typically assigned to menial labour which as building structures which is inefficient as local professionals could build the structures themselves faster (Sun). She argues that if the volunteer instead sent the money to allow the communities to build infrastructure on their own, that these communities would likely be better off (Sun).
The same could be argued for Downie's version of the Wenjack story, which has appeared in various incarnations since it first appeared in print in 1967 when Macleans reporter Ian Adams wrote a feature on Wenjack's escape and death and was fired for it (Macfarlane 92). Subsequently, the story received creative treatment by Indigenous artists: in song by Willie Dunn and as short story by Lee Maracle (Macfarlane 93). In addition, Joseph Boyden, whose claims of Indigenous heritage have since been discredited (Macfarlane 94), based three works on the story, a novella, a ballet, and a "Heritage Minute" commercial (Macfarlane 92). As Clayton Thomas-Müller notes to CBC Radio, "at a time of reconciliation, the most visible face in the discourse around residential schools and reconciliation should not have been a rock star" (CBC Radio). While he was well-positioned to deliver a message of reconciliation to Canadians, Downie did not need the recognition, including the Order of Canada, that he gleaned from the project. Indigenous people do. Instead of succumbing to the white saviour trope, a more authentic path toward reconciliation would have been for Downie to amplify Indigenous voices rather than hoisting the megaphone himself.
While well-intentioned, Downie's project was misguided. Had he approached his legacy with the medical oath "first do no harm" in mind, Downie would have demonstrated the understanding that moving towards reconciliation is more likely to be achieved when white settlers use their privilege and platforms to amplify Indigenous voices, not tell the stories themselves. He may also have mitigated the ensuing media coverage that made the story more about him than about Chanie Wenjack. To think what strides might have been made had Downie handed his microphone to Indigenous people and stood behind them smiling as they themselves told Canadians about their survival and undeniable strengths.
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