TORONTO — Once Gord Downie set his mind to the ”Secret Path,” virtually nothing else mattered.
One year after his death, the new CBC documentary “Finding the Secret Path” shows just how fiercely determined the Tragically Hip frontman was during his brain cancer battle to raise awareness about Canada’s dark history of residential schools through the story of Chanie Wenjack.
The plight of the 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy, who died of hunger and exposure after escaping a northern Ontario residential school in 1966, inspired Downie’s the “Secret Path” multimedia project and the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund that have moved fans and led to various initiatives across the country.
“If you know Gord and you know even physically what a strong constitution he had, he was a real bear,” said Patrick Downie, adding that his brother “scoffed” when doctors told him his illness would hamper his physical ability to perform.
“He was like, ‘I think I will be (able to perform). I’m different from everybody else.’ And he was.
“If he wasn’t a singer, he probably would have been some kind of a professional athlete or something. He just had that fortitude and the physical ability to do it.”
Premiering Friday on CBC, the CBC TV streaming app and cbc.ca/watch, “Finding the Secret Path” marks the first anniversary of Downie’s death from brain cancer on Oct. 17, and the 52nd anniversary of Wenjack’s death on Oct. 22.
“This was a very trying, challenging time for our family, this time last year and the weeks that followed,” said Patrick Downie, who co-executive produced the doc along with Mike Downie and Gord Downie.
The family is planning a “quiet, reflective day” to mark the one-year anniversary with a small, private gathering, he added. On Oct. 27, they’ll also mark the three-year anniversary of their father’s death.
“It’s been a long, hard year, a very sorrowful year, where a lot of good things have happened,” said Patrick Downie, ”and we’ve heard from a lot of people that feel very moved by Gord and miss his presence and music and art.”
Through never-before-seen footage and various interviews, the doc shows the final year of Downie’s life, as he fights through fatigue and self-consciousness about his fading memory to rehearse and perform “The Secret Path” onstage.
“If I have any pull or any push at all, this is what I want to do. Nothing else really matters to me,” he says in the film.
Cameras also capture Downie as he flies with a group to the remote village of Ogoki Post, Ont., to meet with members of the Wenjack family and get their blessing on “The Secret Path” graphic novel, album and animated film. Travelling there was risky, considering Downie had just undergone two brain surgeries and cancer treatment, but he felt it was important.
“That meeting and then the subsequent meetings cemented a really beautiful and long-lasting relationship between the two families,” said Patrick Downie.
As the doc explains, “The Secret Path” has not only raised awareness about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canada, it’s also donated proceeds to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. It’s also led to a school educational program and a hockey program that brings together kids from west Toronto and Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario.
The brothers hope the new doc will encourage even more Downie fans to join the conversation about developing “a more complex culture where Indigenous people have a greater say.”
“We’re not speaking for any Indigenous people whatsoever,” said Mike Downie, who wrote, directed and co-produced the doc.
“We’re talking to Gord’s army and we want them to participate, we want them to get involved, we want them to see what their kids are doing in school and we want them to encourage their friends to learn a little bit more.
“If it starts with awareness, then the next stage has got to be education and then the next stage is action — but you need to go through those in order for it to make any sense.”