When Chanie Wenjack died of exposure in 1966, it triggered the first-ever inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children at Canada's residential schools. Decades later, this searing novella tackles his tragic story.
The first time Canadians heard Chanie Wenjack's story, it was 1967 and it had been months since the 12-year-old Ojibwa boy had died while running away from the residential school he had been forced to attend. At the time, Chanie's tragic fate barely made a dent in our collective consciousness, but 50 years later, Canadian artists—such as Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, graphic novelist and artist Jeff Lemire, electronic music group A Tribe Called Red and author Joseph Boyden—are working to make him a household name. Take, for example, Boyden's latest novella, Wenjack. It's a much shorter read than his last book, The Orenda, but no less critical.
Wenjack follows Chanie on his ill-fated journey home, where, shivering and starving, he's followed by manitous—spirits that take the shape of animals—which observe his journey through sympathetic eyes. Home, you see, is much farther away than Chanie realizes. Wenjack turns a scathing eye on residential schools and reminds us that Chanie's desire for his family, his language and his pet dogs is not a singular story, but, rather, evidence of a dark stain on Canadian history. Boyden continues the difficult conversation of reconciliation by allowing us a glimpse into the frightened mind of a child who only knows that home is where he should be—and that Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School is not it.
Wenjack (Hamish Hamilton Canada)by Joseph Boyden, $12.