TORONTO - On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Chanie Wenjack's passing, Gord Downie offered an impassioned retelling of his story through a collection of songs honouring the late indigenous boy.
The Tragically Hip frontman, who is living with terminal cancer, performed his latest solo effort "Secret Path" at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Friday night.
The album tells the tragic tale of 12-year-old Chanie who died in 1966 after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont.
Downie's older brother, Mike, introduced the musician to Chanie's story, which was documented in a 1967 Maclean's story by Ian Adams called "The Lonely Death of Chanie Wenjack."
Adams and members of Chanie's family filled the front rows, as Downie was greeted by a standing ovation as he walked onstage and saluted the crowd.
It had been a longer than expected wait for Toronto concert-goers, after an unexplained glitch at the box office led to the start of the show being pushed back by an hour.
Downie's Toronto concert followed his "Secret Path" show at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Tuesday, and a performance of the lead track "The Stranger" at the We Day youth empowerment event at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Wednesday.
"Secret Path" originated from a collection of poems written by Downie, which evolved into songs. The album, recorded in 2013, was produced by Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew and Dave Hamelin, known for his work with indie rock group the Stills.
The 10-track album is part of a multimedia project, which includes a graphic novel illustrated by Jeff Lemire and an hour-long animated special airing Sunday on CBC.
A denim-clad Downie and his five-piece band powered through the songs without a break.
A large screen projected images of an animated film, which depicted the journey of a young boy trodding along the railroad tracks, visibly frightened and soaked by rain, walking in search of home —and never reaching his destination.
About a third of the way through the setlist, Downie said to the audience: "Applause will get harder, and that's OK. OK?"
Many in attendance were visibly moved by the conclusion of "Secret Path," wiping away tears and openly sobbing as the animated footage of the young boy walking to his death was echoed in Downie's haunting lyrics to "Here, Here and Here."
It was announced in May that Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a relatively rare but aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer. Yet there has been little downtime since for the singer-songwriter, who embarked on a cross-country tour with the Tragically Hip this past summer.
In an interview prior to the Ottawa show, Mike Downie said the post-tour work has been a form of physical, emotional and mental therapy.
"Gord's making his life count," said Mike Downie.
"This is his most important work, his most powerful work, and I think it's going to live forever. I think in many ways, Chanie's story is going to live forever as well. And I guess they'll be together forever."
Pearl Achneepineskum, Chanie Wenjack's older sister, recalled how Downie and his brothers travelled to their remote northern Ontario community of Ogoki Post last month to present the completed "Secret Path."
"He captured everything that was there — the isolation in the forest, the fear he must have had being alone," Achneepineskum said earlier this week.
Now, she said, there is an unbreakable bond between her family and the Downies.
"It's almost like another brother — that sort of connection."
Downie's friend, acclaimed author Joseph Boyden, has published the novella "Wenjack" in Chanie's honour, to coincide with the release of "Secret Path."
"This was before Gord's diagnosis, the album was done. But if you listen to it now, it is even more poignant," he said in a recent interview.
"There's a lyric: 'I'll be on your shoulder watching you when I'm gone.'"
Proceeds from "Secret Path" will be donated to The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation through The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.