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Memo to Canadian Universities - Robert MacBain

This memo was sent to some of the faculty at Carleton University’s journalism program and some of their counterparts at University of Western Ontario, Ryerson University, McMaster University, University of Windsor, University of King’s College, Concordia University, St. Thomas University, University of British Columbia and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Best regards,

Robert MacBain


DATE:            October 23, 2017

SUBJECT:    Downie, Boyden, the media and the death of little Chanie Wenjack


I suggest it would be worthwhile and instructive for your senior students to conduct a study into how little Chanie Wenjack has become the poster child for all that was wrong with Canada’s Indian residential schools  – despite the fact he was not attending a residential school at the time of his death more than half a century ago.

If you follow up on my suggestion, your students will find that Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden twisted Chanie Wenjack’s tragic story into a pretzel of misinformation.

They will also find that the media have provided false information to their readers, viewers and listeners.

As you’ll note from my website ---  -- I was a senior reporter at the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail and News Director of 1050 CHUM.

I spent almost 28 years providing public relations counsel and service to the CEOs of major corporations, financial institutions, government departments, hospitals, social service agencies and trade and professional associations.

A systematic approach to crisis communication management I developed and applied to some high-profile cases was required reading at the School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University.

On the political front, I was director of communications for the 1974 national Liberal campaign, media adviser for the 1975 Ontario campaign, speech writer for Don Johnston in the 1984 Liberal leadership race and speech writer for David Peterson in the game-changing 1985 campaign.

I’m the author of two books – Two Lives Crossing and Their Home and Native Land – and I’m working simultaneously on two more – one on the Indian residential schools and one on the 2006 Mohawk protests/blockades at Caledonia and the costly aftermath -- for publication in May and October 2018.

Contrary to Gord Downie, Joseph Boyden and the media, 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack was not attending an Indian residential school at the time of his death on October 23, 1966.

He went to a public school in Kenora along with 149 other Aboriginal children from far-away reserves who had been integrated into the public school system and only boarded at the former Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School.

The principal of the public school Chanie attended was quoted in Maclean’s in February, 1967, as saying: “The thing we remember most about him was his sense of humor.  If the teacher in the class made a joke, a play on words, he was always the first to catch on.”

Nothing that was written or said at the time of Chanie’s death suggests that he was physically and/or sexually abused while he was boarding at Cecilia Jeffrey.  Nor is there anything suggesting physical and/or sexual abuse in the section about him in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.


Reports in newspapers across Canada claim repeatedly that young Chanie died “trying to escape” from Cecilia Jeffrey despite the total lack of evidence of any prison-like or abusive conditions from which he would have had any reason to “escape”.

He had made no attempt to leave Cecilia Jeffrey during the three years he boarded there – although he did play hooky one afternoon a week before the start of his fateful journey.

It wasn’t until five days after leaving the Cecilia Jeffrey playground with two orphaned brothers on a sunny Sunday afternoon and hanging out with them and his best friend at their uncle’s nearby cabin that Chanie decided to walk to his parents’ home at the fly-in Ojibway community of Ogoki Post on the Marten Falls reserve.

I suggest that your students should examine the genesis of the Heritage Minute video about Chanie Wenjack that was released and widely-publicized in October, 2016.

In an article published in Maclean’s marking the 50th anniversary of young Chanie’s death, Joseph Boyden said:“None of them had planned this escape on that unseasonably warm autumn afternoon.”

Chanie and the two brothers left wearing light clothing despite the fact the late October nights would be freezing cold.  They were headed for the cabin of the brothers’ uncle which was about 32 kilometres away.  Young Chanie might very well have decided to go along with them on the spur of the moment.


One of the brothers he left with after playing on the swings that Sunday afternoon had run away three times in the last few weeks and the other played hooky on a regular basis.

In the widely-viewed video Joseph Boyden wrote for Historica Canada, a gasping Chanie is shown running out a back door of Cecilia Jeffrey looking furtively over his shoulder as he heads alone into the bush – despite the fact he had been playing with his friends on the swings at the playground. 

Although Cecilia Jeffrey was operated by the Presbyterian Church of Canada and the children only boarded there – under the supervision of a Cree/Saulteaux who had attended residential schools as a child and taught in residential schools in Manitoba before becoming a vocational counsellor with Indian Affairs in Winnipeg -- the Historica Canada video shows children in pyjamas praying on their knees at the foot of the mattresses on their beds as a Catholic priest barks: “Our Father in Heaven.  Hallowed be your name….”


When the priest notices that Chanie isn’t praying with the others, he grabs him and throws him on a bed. Chanie’s older sister’s voice is heard saying  “Kill the Indian in the child. It’s been called cultural genocide.”  Chanie cowers in fear.


As Chanie’s frozen body is shown lying beside the railway tracks, the sister says: “I survived the residential schools.  My brother Chanie didn’t.” Joseph Boyden then says: “Chanie Wenjack was one of thousands of children who died in Canada’s Indian residential school system.”


However, as I mentioned earlier, Chanie wasn’t attending an Indian residential school at the time of his death and Cecilia Jeffrey was most definitely not operated by the Catholic Church.

I suggest that your students should ask Joseph Boyden and those responsible for the Historica Canada video on what basis and for what purpose they decided to broadcast such a distorted version of what actually happened.

Given that children in more than 40,000 classrooms across Canada are learning about the Indian residential schools through the distorted lens of Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire’s Secret Path, I suggest it would also be worthwhile to have your senior journalism students take a very close at their version of the Chanie Wenjack story.

Despite the fact the former Indian residential school Chanie and the other children were boarding at was operated by the Presbyterian Church and they had been integrated into public schools in Kenora, Secret Path shows them praying at their classroom desks with a nun looking on.


The drawings– which thousands of young children across Canada are viewing -- show nuns in habits delousing naked Ojibway boys who are covering their genitals with their hands. A male with a large white cross on his chest drags a screaming child into a building. A nun in a habit pulls a half-naked boy’s ear and makes him yell in pain.


Secret Path clearly implies that Chanie was abused at Cecilia Jeffrey. Gord Downie’s lyrics say: “I will not be struck.  I’m not going back.”  What appears to be a pedophile in a clerical collar with a white cross on his chest approaches Chanie’s bed.  The young boy looks up with a fearful look on his face.

As a shivering Chanie is shown shuffling along the railway tracks in an unsuccessful attempt to reach his far-away home, an imaginary male in clerical collar with a white cross on his chest looks menacingly through the trees. Gord Downie’s lyrics say: “I heard them in the dark. Heard the things they do.  I heard the heavy whispers.  Whispering, ‘Don’t let this touch you’.”


There is no evidence to support Gord Downie’s lyrics.  Nor is there any to support Joseph Boyden’s vivid description of Chanie being sodomized in Wenjack – which is also being read by elementary school children across Canada.

“He lies down beside me on the skinny mattress that smells of old pee and he takes me in his arms and holds me.  His skin is gizhaate.  Hot.  His skin glows like a fish belly in the dark.  Ozhaawaa.  He pushes himself against me.  He smells like the colour called brown.  He pushes me on my stomach.  His mouth.  Nindoon.  On my back.  Nipikwan.  Hurt. He hurts. Don`t hurt me. Please don`t hurt.”

In writing about one of the four nights Chanie spent with his friends at their uncle’s cabin before striking out for home, Joseph Boyden says: “The girl lies in her bed and stares at this strange boy.  She can see something in him she thinks.  Someone hurt him bad.  So bad that it is stuck inside him and he’s so scared of it but more scared to let it out….He sees she stares at him but she won’t move her eyes.  She dares him with her dark eyes to tell her why he hurts.”


Further on, Boyden writes: “Your job is to send the stranger [Chanie] away,” the uncle says.  “Someone broke something in him.  We don’t have the tools to fix it.”  


He also writes: “The only thing the school he’s run away from has taught him is how to be fearful of adults.”


There is no evidence in Ian Adams’ 1967 article in Maclean’s or in anything else that was written at the time to support what Joseph Boyden wrote.

The Penguin Canada publisher’s note for Wenjack describes it as “a powerful and poignant look into the world of a residential school runaway trying to find his way home.”  The words centred on the back cover below the skull of a mouse say: “One day I will run.  One day they won’t hurt me anymore.”

Children learning about the residential schools through Secret Path in classrooms across Canada appear convinced young Chanie was sexually abused. 

One of the three students in the photo below wrote Gord Downie’s lyric “Don’t let this touch you” on a drawing showing an apparent victim of sexual abuse.

Those impressionable young minds had no way of knowing what they were being taught is an almost total misrepresentation of what actually happened.


Your students should ask school officials why it is appropriate for elementary school students to be reading a book about Chanie Wenjack being sodomized and in which he refers to “the fuck-off rocks Along the tracks”.


In an article that was posted online in C2C Journal on October 2, 2017 – click here to  Read More » -- I documented the manner in which Chanie Wenjack’s tragic story has been totally distorted.

An earlier version of that article was rejected by the National Post in March of this year.

When I raised the issue with Paul Godfrey, I got an email from senior vice-president Gerry Nott saying: “Paul had asked me to look into your concern about why two oped submissions by you were not published in the National Post.  I have read both pieces and discussed them with the editors involved.

“The March 2017 piece on Gord Downie, relied too much, in their view on reporting by McLean’s [sic] magazine and they felt the piece was better suited to a book review than the oped pages of the Post.”

Too much Maclean’s?  A “book review”?

My earlier article was also rejected by Maclean’s in August of this year.  No reason was given despite the fact Editor-in-Chief Alison Uncles had asked to see it and it was a 1967 article in Maclean’s that got the ball rolling.

An editorial in the Toronto Star on October 18, 2017, said Gord Downie’s Secret Path tells the true story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibwe boy who died of exposure and hunger after running away from an Ontario residential school in 1966.”

I sent an email to editorial page editor Andrew Phillips pointing out that Chanie was only boarding at the former Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School at the time of his death.

I also attached my recent article in C2C Journal documenting the manner in which Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden totally distorted “the true story” of young Chanie Wenjack.

Mr. Phillips’ dismissive one-sentence response was: ”Thanks for your note, but we are satisfied that the editorial is correct.”

Satisfied on what basis?  On what evidence?  On what correlation of the facts?

As someone with more than 50 years of experience in journalism, politics and public relations, I find that response quite disturbing.

When I was a senior reporter at the Toronto Star, such a cavalier disregard for truth and editorial integrity would not have been tolerated.

Mr. Phillips is now on record as saying the Toronto Star is knowingly perpetuating a distorted account of young Chanie’s death despite the fact it is completely at odds with the February, 1967, article in Maclean’s Gord Downie says was the source and inspiration for the lyrics he wrote for Secret Path.

Your students would learn a lot by asking Mr.Phillips on what basis the Toronto Star believes Secret Path “tells the true story” of the death of little Chanie Wenjack.

I suggest it would also be worthwhile for your students to look into the Downie-Wenjack Fund.

In a column published in newspapers across Canada, WE Charity co-founders Craig and Marc Kielburger said Chanie Wenjack  “died fleeing his residential school” and encouraged Canadians to donate money in support of “Legacy Rooms” in restaurants, schools, libraries and corporate boardrooms.

“For a $5,000 donation,” they wrote, “the Downie-Wenjack Fund will provide an official plaque and signage explaining Chanie's story to set the tone for the Legacy Room. The money raised supports initiatives to teach about residential schools in Canadian classrooms.”


Gord Downie gets top billing on the $5,000 plaques in Legacy Rooms that are now sprouting up across Canada. His trademark hat sits atop the words “The Gord Downie” in boldface. The line below in smaller, lighter, type says: “& CHANIE WENJACK FUND.”  There’s a photo of Gord Downie performing at one of his concerts on the left side of the plaque and one of a shy, smiling little Chanie on the right.

One might well ask whose “legacy” is being commemorated.  Chanie Wenjack’s name is completely overshadowed.

The plaque looks more to me like part of a donor-supported promotion for the late Gord Downie’s solo albums.

All in all, there’s a significant amount of relevant material for your students to work with.

I do hope you will give my constructive suggestions careful thought.

There is much more to this national story that we can discuss once the study is under way.

Best regards to you all,

Robert MacBain


My website is: