With so much news about horrific discoveries at former residential schools, now would be a good time to take a look back instead of reviewing a new book.
If you want to learn more about how Indigenous children suffered, check out Southwestern Ontario creator Jeff Lemire’s Secret Path, the graphic novel he published with Gord Downie in 2016, a year before the Tragically Hip frontman’s death.
Secret Path tells the true story of how one resident, Chanie Wenjack, died of exposure in 1966 after fleeing the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora.
In this wordless graphic novel, Lemire doesn’t try to make any kind of political statement. Instead, he shows how a dehumanizing system destroys one young person. He breaks the entire tragedy of residential schools down into its human dimensions by focusing on one child.
Lemire used washed-out tones to capture the northern Ontario landscape, portraying it as beautiful and cruel at the same time.
In the years since Secret Path, Lemire’s powers have only grown. I’d argue he is on his way to becoming the Jack Kirby of his generation – not in terms of his influence (no one will ever be as influential on the comics industry as Kirby was), but definitely in terms of the volume of work he has generated. Lemire once said he simply applies the work ethic he developed growing up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario to drawing and writing.
Another Lemire book, Roughneck, is connected to Secret Path in that it grew out of his work with Downey, and also features a doomed Indigenous character in northern Ontario. Unlike Secret Path, it’s not based on an actual person, but features a character that will be familiar to Canadian readers: Derek Ouellette, a half-Indigenous former hockey enforcer.
There is also mention of the residential school system in Roughneck.
Even Lemire’s Trillium, a science-fiction yarn set hundreds of years from now, gives a nod to First Nations. In the concluding panels of the book, about a space virus threatening humanity after it has left Earth, Lemire suggests Indigenous culture very well may be the future of humankind.