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The Lonely Death of an Ojibway Boy

Originally published in Quillette on April 23 2024

By Robert MacBain


Charlie Wenjack has come to symbolise the deadly horrors of Canada’s Residential Schools. Unfortunately, many details of his tragic story have been misrepresented in the process.

On the sunny afternoon of October 16, 1966, just a few weeks into the school year, 12-year-old Charlie (aka “Chanie”) Wenjack was enjoying himself on the swings in the playground at the back of Cecilia Jeffrey (CJ) Indian Residential School in northwestern Ontario. Seven days later, his lifeless body was found lying beside the railway tracks about 70 kilometres east of the Ontario–Manitoba border.

Today, Charlie Wenjack is the most famous Residential school student in Canadian history—a symbol of the suffering endured by Indigenous children who were forced to attend white-run boarding schools away from their families.

Books have been written about Charlie. Buildings have been named in his memory. He is featured in more than 50 “Legacy Spaces” across Canada sponsored by banks, major retailers, universities, performing-arts centres, and governments. Thousands of Canadians from coast to coast “Walk for Wenjack” every October. Children in more than 65,000 classrooms across Canada and in the United States are being taught about his altogether too-short life and tragic death through a book called Secret Path.

Unfortunately, much of what has been written and said about Charlie Wenjack—including some contents of Secret Path—has no basis in fact.

While it is absolutely true that he longed to be back with his family, and that he died of exposure while trying to make the ill-advised trek back home, lurid depictions of Charlie being preyed upon by priests and nuns within a schoolhouse full of gothic horrors are completely ahistorical. (Indeed, there were no priests or nuns working at CJ at the time Charlie attended.) What follows below is part of the true story of his short life and tragic death.

Two orphaned brothers were with Charlie at the swings on the afternoon of October 16, 1966—13-year-old Ralph McDonald and his 11-year-old brother Jack. Their parents had been run over by a train in the middle of the night two years previously, and had been buried at the Ojibwa Presbyterian Cemetery at the opposite end of Round Lake from CJ. According to the June 19, 1958, issue of the Kenora Daily Miner and News, the cemetery “is a last resting place for Christian Indians in this area.” Staff from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School took care of the cemetery until after the school was closed in 1976, and the property was transferred to the Grand Council Treaty #3. (Since that time, unfortunately, the cemetery has been neglected and is now overgrown with weeds.)

Unidentified students on the playground swings at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 1965.
Unidentified students on the playground swings at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 1965.

Kenora is an almost entirely white community with a population of approximately 15,000, located at the north end of the Lake of the Woods. The Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, which was operated by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, was set on a former 60-hectare farm. Its facilities were used to house not only its own young Residential School students, but also somewhat older Indigenous students—Charlie included—who studied at nearby public schools.

Residential schools had existed in Canada since the nineteenth century. But in 1951, the country’s Indian Act was amended so as to enable the federal government to arrange with its provincial counterparts and school boards to have Indigenous students educated in normal public schools. By 1960, the number of Indigenous students attending public schools (9,479) was equal to the number in Residential Schools (9,471).

At Cecilia Jeffrey, however, a reverse form of integration had taken place. Starting in 1960, a significant number of white students, including those from a public school called Rabbit Lake, were transferred to the Residential School.

In a letter to the editor published in the January 18, 1961, Daily Miner and News, then-Principal Stephen T. Robinson said a new school was to have been built on the Cecilia Jeffrey property to accommodate 50–60 Indigenous students—plus students from white schools in the immediate area, as a means to relieve overcrowding in the public system. However, the project was delayed and, in consultation with the local school board, it was decided that 80 white students would join the Indigenous students at Cecilia Jeffrey.

This was an era when black and white students were being integrated in the United States. And this Canadian project was no doubt seen as, in some ways, a similar endeavour. “Working and playing in these surroundings,” Principal Robinson said, “have given both of these groups of children a good understanding of each other.”

A local newspaper reporter interviewed two white and two Indigenous students in Grade 8 to get their reaction to the reverse integration process. “Except for some shyness on the part of the girls, there seems to have been no problem,” the journalist concluded.

Students boarding a chartered bus, carrying suitcases and tote bags.
A photo of unknown date, showing CJ students heading back home for the summer.

One white student said he’d been at Kenora’s Rabbit Lake School until 1960, and was told he was being moved to Cecilia Jeffrey.

“I did not have any feeling against it,” he said. “I am here [at Cecilia Jeffrey] and I like it. There is more to do, and we are able to take shop, which I like. There are bigger playing fields. I don’t care whether Indians or other boys are on the team… If I were asked to choose on my own whether or not to come to Cecilia Jeffrey, I would come.”

An Indigenous student from Sandy Lake, more than 500 kilometres north of Kenora, had been at Cecilia Jeffrey for several years, and told the local newspaper: “I did not mind when I learned that Rabbit Lake [School] pupils were coming to CJ school. I think it is nice having them here. If we go on to high school, it will be good for us to get used to non-Indian friends before we get there. We learn more English with more English-speaking kids around.”

Another white student from the Rabbit Lake School said she’d been at another public school before Rabbit Lake. “I felt a little funny about coming here [to Cecilia Jeffrey] at first, but I like the girls and we all get along fine. One thing which I enjoy a lot at CJ School is our nice home-economics department.”

A student from the Lac des Mille Lacs band at Upsula, about 350 kilometres east of Kenora, described her feelings when the white students first arrived at Cecilia Jeffrey:

We girls felt shy when [white] outsiders first came to our school, but now we are glad they are here. I have some non-Indian friends among my classmates. My sister has a very close friend who is a white girl. They phone each other every night. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between us all.

By the time Charlie arrived at Cecilia Jeffrey, a new public school had been built nearby to accommodate local white students and Indigenous students who would board at Cecilia Jeffrey.

Charlie’s friend Ralph McDonald is known to have run away from CJ three times that Fall. Charlie, on the other hand, had made no attempt to run away during the three years he’d been at the school. However, he had skipped class at the local public school he was attending one afternoon a week previously.

For that infraction, Charlie was spanked by the new principal, Colin Wasacase, a Cree/Saulteaux educator from the Ochopowace Band east of Regina who had himself attended Residential Schools as a child and taught at two of them as an adult.

A section of a typewritten letter from Colin Wasacase to Miss Giollo Kelly of the Women's Missionary Society, dated 24 September 1966.
Portions of a September 24, 1966 letter written by CJ’s principal, Colin Wasacase to his colleagues at the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

According to a Daily Miner and News report on the inquest into Charlie’s death, it was a restless Ralph McDonald who took the initiative to leave that Sunday afternoon “because he wanted to visit his uncle, whom he liked.” The newspaper quoted Ralph saying he much preferred trapping animals with his uncle to being in school.

The newspaper also reported that Charlie’s best friend, 10-year-old Eddie Cameron, testified that Charlie was lonely and, when the McDonald brothers headed for their uncle’s cabin, he decided to tag along with them.

According to a February 1967 article by Ian Adams, published in Maclean’s, the decision to run away had been made on the spur of the moment. “Right there on the playground, the three boys decided to run away… It was a sunny afternoon, and they were wearing only light clothing. If they had planned it a little better, they could have taken along their parkas and overshoes. That might have saved Charlie’s life.”

Three of Charlie’s sisters, who were also at Cecilia Jeffrey, might well have been on the playground that Sunday afternoon. Wherever they were, he didn’t say goodbye to them, which suggests that he intended to return after the visit to the uncle’s cabin.

During one of the many interviews I conducted in Kenora for my newly published book, Lonely Death of an Ojibway Boy, a former senior staffer at CJ, Abe Loewen, told me the doors were never locked. There was no gate at the open-pillared road entrance, and no fence on the opposite side of the property. Nothing would have prevented Charlie or any other child from leaving the school whenever they felt like it.

A photo of the exterior of Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, showing a red-brick building with a playing field and swings in front.
A photo of the exterior of Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. The building has since been demolished, and the site is now used by the Grand Council Treaty #3 offices and the Lake of the Woods Ojibway Cultural Centre.

In a letter that Principal Colin Wasacase wrote to the Women’s Missionary Society a month before Charlie’s death, he reported that a large number of children had taken advantage of the warm weather “by staying away from school and wandering away from the premises.” He said he hoped they would soon lose the urge to wander and “settle into the school situation as the year progresses.”

He wrote another letter a few days later, indicating that the children had indeed started to settle down a bit, and only a few persisted in wandering away from the property.

In response, a senior staff member of the Women’s Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church—which oversaw the school’s operations—wrote that she recalled being at the school a few years previously, and that “it was very difficult to get the youngsters in for their meals… It was the kind of weather which must have made them think of home. I realize that it will be a very trying period for the staff, and I do trust that while we do not hope for poor weather they will soon become accustomed to the routine of the new school year.”

Loewen told me that Robinson, who’d been the principal from 1958 until a few months before Charlie’s death, used to arrange for sandwiches to be left in the bush so that wandering children wouldn’t go hungry. He knew where they were and that they’d be home in time for supper. They’d most likely wandered away because they hadn’t settled down after enjoying the freedom they’d enjoyed during the summer vacation back on their home reserves. In fact, the senior boys maintained a trap line that extended all the way around Kenora.

Charlie and the McDonald brothers were free to come and go as they pleased, outside of classes, and this was, after all, a Sunday afternoon.

According to journalistic accounts, Charlie and the McDonald brothers spent the first night away from school about 30 kilometres north of Kenora at a cabin owned by a white man the brothers referred to as “Mr. Benson.” He gave the exhausted boys something to eat and let them sleep on his floor.

They walked less than a kilometre the next morning to the cabin where the brothers’ uncle, Charles Kelly, lived with his wife, Clara, and two teenage daughters.

Adams reported that the uncle, like many Ojibways in the area, then lived a hard life; and, despite the modest income he derived from welfare and trapping, his family was often desperate for food. He also reported that it was obvious that Kelly cared for his nephews and was uncertain about what to do about the fact that they were supposed to be in school.

“I told the boys they would have to go back,” Kelly told Adams. “They said if I sent them back they would run away again. I didn’t know what to do. They won’t stay at the school. I couldn’t let them run around in the bush. So I let them stay. It was a terrible mistake.”

Charlie Wenjack was born on January 19, 1954, at the remote, fly-in Ojibway community of Ogoki Post on the Albany River up near James Bay. His father was a fur trapper.

Ogoki Post is part of Marten Falls Indian Reserve No. 65. Starting around 1784, the area had been the site of a Hudson’s Bay Company supply depot, which served traders operating from Hudson Bay heading to points farther south. It subsequently became one of the reserves included in Treaty No. 9, which covered 145,000 square kilometres inhabited by approximately 2,500 Ojibways and Crees. When the treaty was signed in 1905, the population of Marten Falls was approximately 150.

“This is an important post of the Hudson’s Bay Company,” the treaty commissioners reported. “[But a] first glance at the Indians served to convince that they were not equal in physical development to those at Osnaburg or Fort Hope [farther south], and the comparative poverty of their hunting grounds may account for this fact.”

Despite the fact the residents at Marten Falls did not fare as well as their counterparts farther south, a feast was held after the treaty was signed. “Chief [William] Whitehead made an excellent speech, in which he described the benefits that would follow the treaty and his gratitude to the King and the government for extending a helping and protecting hand to the Indians,” the commissioners reported.

(One of the four headmen who signed Treaty No 9 with an X at Marten Falls on Tuesday, July 25, 1905 was listed as William Weenjack. He could very well have been one of Charlie Wenjack’s relatives.)

In the 1930s and 1940s, when Charlie’s father James and mother Agnes were growing up, people at Marten Falls lived in teepees and prospector tents. There was no electricity or plumbing. The only means of transportation was by dog teams, canoes, and York boats. Most babies were born in the bush with assistance from midwives. In winter, the newborns would be wrapped in blankets made of rabbit fur to keep them warm. Dried moss was used instead of diapers. Homemade cradleboards were used to keep the babies safe on their mothers’ backs. As they got older and started to walk, bigger cradleboards were constructed.

Dakonaagan (Cradleboards)
Dakonaagan (Cradleboards) Cradleboards are a traditional Native American method mothers used to safely carry their infants in a way that allowed them to freely use their hands. Children are tightly swaddled to feel secure and fuss less and cradleboards help cultivate good posture. Cradleboards can show kinship and be passed through communities

The girls learned at a young age how to make lacing for the snowshoes and moccasins and mittens. The boys would be out in the bush with their father, learning how to trap, hunt, and cut wood. The main food was moose meat, supplemented by rabbits and partridges.

In late September of each year, the families would head for their trap lines and stay out in the bush until May or June. But game was getting scarce at that time. Families would sometimes have no pelts to trade at the Hudson’s Bay Company store for food and other items.

In their spare time, families would get together for dancing, playing cards, and renewing acquaintances. When the children returned home from Residential School in June, a square dance was held to celebrate having them home for the summer months.

According to records kept by the Department of Indian Affairs, town site planning and development didn’t start until the 1970s. Up until the 1980s, there were no sewers or waterworks. As of June, 2022, approximately 650 individuals were registered as status Indians at Marten Falls. Of those, about half were still living on the reserve and the others were living off-reserve.

Charlie Wenjack was nine when he first arrived at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. Getting there required an hour-long plane ride followed by more than 10 hours on a train.

There is no record of anything Charlie said about the way he was treated during the three years he was at Cecilia Jeffrey. However, other students who were at the school at or around the same time as Charlie wrote letters describing the school as a place where they felt loved and cared for.

A significant number of the students called Principal Stephen Robinson and his wife, Agnes, who was the school matron, “Dad” and “Mom.” Many thanked them for being such good caregivers to them while they were living hundreds of kilometres away from their homes and family. Parents who had attended the school wrote letters saying they had enjoyed their time there and appreciated the way their children were being cared for.

One teenage student at home for the holidays at a fly-in reserve about 520 kilometres northeast of Kenora addressed Mrs Robinson as “Dearest Mom.” Toward the end of her letter, she wrote: “Moms, say hi to Pops for me and happy holidays to both of you. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me during the year. I better close off with May God be with You.” The letter was dated August 13, 1965, a little over a year before Charlie Wenjack’s death.

Former students who’d left because they were needed at home, or for other reasons, such as running away, wrote asking if the school would please take them back. Others said they wanted to come for a visit and renew acquaintances with the staff and friends they’d made while they were at the school.

In the more than 300 letters that I have read, there isn’t so much as a hint of any child being emotionally, physically, or sexually abused by any member of the CJ staff—though we certainly do know that such abuse did take place at other Residential schools.

There was, however, a significant amount of bullying among the students. And younger children were reluctant to report such bullying for fear of retribution.

Charlie’s best friend, Eddie Cameron, was one of the boys who showed up at Charles Kelly’s cabin on Monday morning. He was another of the uncle’s nephews and, according to Adams, this “gathering of relations subtly put Charlie Wenjack out in the cold.”

Adams reported that when he interviewed them after Charlie’s death, Kelly and his wife referred to Charlie as “the stranger.” The Kellys “had no idea where Charlie’s reserve was or how to get there.”

Charlie had, by this point, made the approximately 600-kilometre trip seven times, and so would have been able to tell them about having to take the plane and the train. It would have been abundantly clear that there was absolutely no way the 12-year-old boy could make it home on foot.

According to Adams’ account in Maclean’s, “Nobody told Charlie to go. Nobody told him to stay, either. But as the days passed, Charlie got the message.”

I’ve often wondered why Charlie stayed with the Kellys for four days after leaving the school. It strikes me that he wasn’t in any particular hurry to get home. Perhaps—and it’s only a perhaps—he would have tagged along with his friends if they’d gone back to school, just as he’d tagged along when Ralph McDonald decided he wanted to visit his uncle. But we don’t know.

On the Thursday morning, three days after their arrival, Kelly decided to take his three nephews about five kilometres north to his trapline at Mud Lake. “It was too dangerous for five in the canoe,” Adams quoted him saying, “so I told the stranger [Charlie] he would have to stay behind.”

Charlie remained at the cabin and played by himself for a while, Adams reported, and then he told Clara Kelly he was leaving. He asked for some matches so he could warm himself by a fire along the way.

It was late October, and in this part of Canada, the temperature was already dropping significantly at night. All Charlie had to protect himself from the bitter cold was a light cotton windbreaker. Mrs Kelly gave him some wooden matches in a little glass jar and some fried potatoes mixed with strips of bacon.

Instead of striking east along the Canadian National Railway’s right-of-way toward his far-away home, Charlie walked north about five kilometres and met the other boys and Kelly. Adams reports that all they had to eat that night was two potatoes that Kelly cooked and divided among the boys. The uncle had nothing for himself to eat or drink except some tea.

During one of my interviews in Kenora with (former) Principal Wasacase, he told me that he’d become quite concerned when he discovered that Charlie was missing. He searched Rabbit Lake and other nearby areas while an Indian Affairs official searched around the Rat Portage Indian reserve and the Keewatin area west of Kenora. Meanwhile, police tried to contact Charlie’s parents at Ogoki Post.

On making inquiries, Wasacase learned that Charlie had been on the swings in the playground with the McDonald brothers. He told me that he knew their uncle lived about 30 kilometres away. When there was still no word of the boy’s whereabouts by Thursday, he decided to drive to the uncle’s cabin on a hunch that Charlie might be there.

He knocked on the cabin door three days before Charlie’s lifeless body was found beside the railway tracks. Clara Kelly answered, and told him that neither the boys nor Charlie had been there. In fact, Charlie had been at her home since Monday morning and was alive and well with her husband and nephews at the trapline, less than five kilometres away.

Wasacase told me he still wasn’t sure why she didn’t tell him the truth. He thought it might have been because she didn’t want to cause trouble for her three nephews. There’s also the possibility she might have feared getting herself and her husband in trouble for not notifying the authorities, as an inquest jury later concluded they should have.

According to Adams, Charles Kelly told Charlie on Friday morning that he’d have to walk back to the main cabin because there wasn’t enough room for him in the canoe. Charlie said that was okay, because he’d decided to walk home to be with his father and wouldn’t be going back to the cabin.

“I never said nothing to that,” Kelly said, according to Adams. “I showed him a good trail down to the [nearby] railroad tracks. I told him to ask the section men along the way for some food.”

In the official form that he prepared in support of an inquest into Charlie’s death, Coroner Dr R. Glenn Davidson wrote, “they [the boys] stayed at the Kellys for a few days, and then Wenjack was told to leave. Wenjack was given some matches in a glass container and a map by Kelly’s wife. It is believed he left about 3:00 pm October 19 [Wednesday] to head east.”

One reason why Dr. Davidson had the wrong date—in fact, Mr. Kelly didn’t show Charlie the way to the nearby railway tracks until Friday, October 21—was that the magazine article describing Charlie’s trip to the trap line wasn’t published until more than three months after his death. That important information wasn’t available to Dr Davidson at the time he issued the warrant for the inquest.

Dr Davidson wrote in his report that one of the reasons he’d decided to hold the inquest was “to ascertain if [Charles] Kelly turned the boy loose with no food to travel over 300 miles east, on the [railway] track.”

That hike (which would take even a well-provisioned adult two weeks to complete) would have taken Charlie to the town of Nakina in north central Ontario, from where he’d have to take a plane to get to Ogoki Post. He had no food, water, or money. And it isn’t clear how he would have convinced anyone to fly him back to his reserve, even if he’d managed to complete the hike.

Charles Kelly testified at the inquest that Charlie had left without his knowledge, contradicting his statement to Adams that he’d showed Charlie how to get down to the railway tracks on Friday morning. In the end, the inquest jury issued a handwritten report that concluded that both “Mr Benson” (at whose cabin the boys stayed Sunday night) and Kelly “should have notified the authorities of the [boys’] presence.”

We can only speculate about what serious consequences there would have been for Charles Kelly if the coroner and the jury had known that Charlie had been at his trapline cabin on Thursday night and that he’d turned him loose Friday morning with neither food nor water, nor much idea of where he was going.

Charles Kelly was the last person known to have seen Charlie alive.

The boy made it only about 20 kilometres east on the railway tracks through snow squalls and freezing rain, wearing a light cotton windbreaker, before fainting and falling on his back.

The engineer of a westbound freight train spotted his lifeless body lying beside the railway tracks at a rock cut just before noon on Sunday morning—seven days after he’d been playing on the swings with the McDonald brothers at Cecilia Jeffrey.

“Charlie must have fallen several times because bruises were found later on his shins, forehead and over his left eye,” Adams wrote in Maclean’s. “And then at some point on Saturday night, Charlie fell backward in a faint and never got up again. That’s the position they found him in.”

Dr Davidson listed the cause of Charlie’s death as “exposure to cold and wet. ” He also said, “the deceased was not strong, and was very quiet and likely timid, as many young Indian children are who have little to do with town life.”

Charlie was, indeed, a very slight, frail, little boy. It would appear from the autopsy report that he had contracted tuberculosis several years before his death. Gravel was found on his face and mouth. His stomach was empty. He’d been dead for about twenty-four hours.

It was a truly tragic end for this young Ojibway boy, who had no choice but to attend an Indian Residential School 600 kilometres from his home and family. And he might very well be alive today if any of the three adults he’d come in contact with after tagging along with the McDonald brothers on that bright Sunday afternoon of October 16, 1966 had notified the school or the police.

Charlie Wenjack would have celebrated his 70th birthday on Saturday, January 19, 2024.


This essay has been adapted, with permission, from the author’s newly published book, Lonely Death of an Ojibway Boy.

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