The Runaways Project: Help us tell these stories

‘Chanie haunts me,’ Gord Downie says. ‘His story is Canada’s story.’ There are other stories, of course, which Maclean’s wants to tell



This week, Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip released what he describes as “the best thing I’ve ever done”: Secret Path, a solo album and graphic novel inspired by the heartbreaking story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Ojibwe boy who perished in the freezing cold after fleeing residential school 50 years ago. Like so many, the iconic singer first read about the runaway in an old clip from Maclean’s, a 1967 story that drew national attention to a case that otherwise would have surely been forgotten.

Chanie was enrolled at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., and all he wanted was to get home to his family—in Ogoki Post, a reserve 600 km away. His died of exposure near a set of train tracks, with nothing but a few matches in his pocket.

Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Downie has committed his dying days and celebrity clout to shining a light on the shameful legacy of residential schools—through the lens of Chanie Wenjack—while urging every Canadian to play a role in the immeasurable healing that still needs to happen. All proceeds from his project, created in collaboration with Toronto artist Jeff Lemire, will go toward the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. “Chanie haunts me,” Downie says. “His story is Canada’s story.”

There are other stories, of course. During its exhaustive investigation, completed last year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) uncovered evidence of at least 32 other children who lost their lives while attempting to run away from residential schools. In the months to come, Maclean’s wants to share their stories with the country, too—and we’d like your help.

Listed below are the names and known details of some of the other runaways who did not survive that dark chapter of Canadian history. Most of this information is only known because of the groundbreaking work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If you know more about any of these children, please contact us at or fill out the form below.

The first installment in our series—the tragic story of two other 12-year-olds who followed in Chanie’s footsteps—can be found here.


DUNCAN STICKS, 8: He was one of nine boys who ran away from St. Joseph’s Mission School in Williams Lake, B.C., in February 1902. A search party found eight of the boys, but principal Henry Boening decided not to keep looking for Sticks. Boening assumed the boy would have found shelter for the night under a haystack. Sticks’ frozen body was discovered the next day.

PERCY OCHAPOWACE, 15: On Jan. 13, 1935, three boys bolted from Round Lake Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. The principal, R.J. Ross, waited four days before mailing a notification to the Department of Indian Affairs. Although two of the boys made it to safety, Ochapowace did not. He died of exposure.

ALLEN PATRICK, 9; ANDREW PAUL, 8; JUSTA MAURICE, 8; JOHN JACK, 7: The four friends ran away from Lejac Indian Residential School in Fraser Lake, B.C. on the afternoon Jan. 2, 1937. A search party was not organized until the following day. By then, all four boys had frozen to death. A coroner’s jury later concluded that school officials should have taken “more definite action” after realizing the boys were missing.

ANDREW GORDON, 11: On March 11, 1939, he vanished from the Gordon’s Reserve Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Sask. Principal R.W. Frayling, never launched a search, never informed the boy’s family, and never alerted police or Indian Affairs. Three days later, Gordon’s father found his son’s frozen body. Livid, a local Indian Affairs official later wrote that “there has been negligence with regard to this case,” and that the death “should never have occurred.”

JOHN KIOKI, 14; MICHAEL SUTHERLAND, 13; MICHEL MATINAS, 11: The three boys slipped out of their dormitory at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., on April 18, 1941. They were never seen again. Kioki’s father later said he was “not sure sufficient search was made for my son and the other boys.”

ALBERT NEPINAK: He ran away from Pine Creek School in Camperville, Man., in April 1951. When his father was informed of his disappearance the next day, he went searching, eventually finding his son’s frozen body.

TOM OMBASH, 12; CHARLES OMBASH, 11: The boys ran away from the residential school in Sioux Lookout, Ont., in November 1956, and were never seen again. An Indian Affairs agent later described the principal’s conduct in the case as “inconceivable.”

BEVERLY JOSEPH, 12; PATRICIA MARILYN JOSEPH, 14: Students at Kuper Island Indian Residential School in Penelakut, B.C., the sisters escaped in a small boat on the evening of Jan. 16, 1959. Their disappearance was discovered the next morning, but police were not contacted until the afternoon. Marilyn’s body was recovered from the water; Beverly was also presumed to have drowned.

GLEICHEN, ALBERTA: On March 8, 1962, three girls ran away from the Old Sun Indian Residential School. The principal made no effort to locate them. The girls were overtaken by a blizzard, and two of them died.

CHANIE WENJACK: The inspiration for Gord Downie’s newly released Secret Path project, the 12-year-old died from exposure after running away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. His tragic story was the subject of a 1967 Maclean’s cover story that shone a national spotlight on the case.

PHILLIP SWAIN, 12; RODERICK TAYPAYWAYKEJICK, 12: Forced to attend St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., the boys froze to death after running away on Nov. 27, 1970—four years after Chanie Wenjack’s case was supposed to usher in strict guidelines on how schools should promptly react to missing students.

LAWRENCE JACK ELANIK; DENNIS DICK: Living at Stringer Hall, the Anglican Residential School in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, the boys ran away on June 23, 1972. Elanik’s body was found but Dick’s never was, despite the best efforts of authorities. Unlike so many botched cases in years past, Principal L. Holman did all he could to find the students. As he later wrote: “Everything that could possibly be done, was done, to try and locate these boys before it was too late. The R.C.M.P., the Regional Director’s Office & Staff, owners of private aircraft, the various Air Services, Helicopter Operator’s [sic], private citizens and the men of the Armed Forces at Inuvik, did a valiant job.”


The Runaways Project: Help us tell these stories

  1. Getting really sick of just hearing one side of the issue (we have yet to hear from the teachers, nuns, priest etc who have been accused, I guess it makes it easier when most if not all of them are dead)!!! Getting really sick and tired of hearing the whining and crying while seeing them spend money on court cases (and winning) doing land grabs, blaming Whites, expecting the government to “fix” everything, the racism, and the pulling of the race card!!!! This catering only causes more division and dissension!!!!

    • I have never heard anyone blaming whites. Perhaps if you had a family member freeze to death in the bush you would understand how these people feel and it was the government who screwed this all up in the first place so hence it is their responsibility to fix the mess they made. but go ahead continue whining about us poor whites and say i am wrong and live in your bubble.

      • Maybe we should also have an inquiry into what happened to young boys at the Kingsclear “training” School/reformatory back in the 1960s.
        My little brother was picked up for trespassing ( he was crossing a parking lot) by a local police constable, and sent to Kingsclear for this, as my mother had left us, and my father – a WW2 veteran, struggling with un-diagnosed PTSD, was not a competent parent.
        Thus, it was deemed by an incompetent, judge – probably with connections to the same ring of child molesters that included Karl Toft, and Richard Hatfield- that he would be better off in a viper’s nest of bullies, hardened criminals, and pedeophiles.
        He disappeared- without a trace, even though a man was convicted of creating an indignity to a human corpse (assumed to be my brother, based on the testimony of an unpaid informant), without having to say who the corpse was, how & why he became a corpse, or where the corpse was dumped.( He pled guilty & received a 2 month SUSPENDED sentence- so he & his girlfriend could spend Christmas with their 3 kids- all supported by our generous welfare system)
        There were a lot of kids back in the 1960s, whose fathers, although considered war heroes, struggled with civilian life.
        They had a short fuse- were abusive, or had alcohol problems, which included explosive episodes of irrational anger.
        Maybe the kids born during the baby boom years, who had dysfunctional families because of a lack of care for returning veterans who had few physical injuries, but (embarassing) mental health issues- should be interviewed, and awarded damages for their lost lives. After all, our fathers helped save the world.
        There were even aboriginals in that group.

  2. Just more evidence that residential schools where never about good intentions; this goes all the way back to the 17th century when the Catholic church wanted to turn ‘indians’ into good house servants.
    One sad thing about these stories from the past is it may tend to create the assumption that things are better now when a defacto residential system still exists. Distributed over the 916 reserves considered a population center by Statistics Canada are 527 schools – obviously a substantial portion of on reserve children must attend an off reserve school frequently 100s of km away. Secondary schools are even farther away and in many cases unavailable; while the graduate cohort is less than half that of other secondary students, from the get-go 18.5% of eligible students are denied the opportunity of attending due to lack of funding. With 41% of on-reserve children attending off-reserve schools, often at great distance, the residential system is not so much gone as re-engineered.
    Under-funding of on-reserve education or more exactly education of on reserve children on and off reserve is well known; given the circumstances, one might reasonably expect that such education would require more not less funding than average. Even then, comparisons are flawed as per student funding levels in public schools does not take into account funding of provincial education departments and jointly funded adjuncts such as co-located libraries, day cares, recreational facilities, etc.
    In any case, the instances of children and teens having to leave home in order to attend school are all too common. The modern stories of aboriginal students who come to harm while living away from home in order to attend school should also be told.

    • These cases are into being 50 years old.
      It was not the taxpayers of today who made the mistakes.
      The world ( well, at least the western world) has evolved.
      We aren’t suing the German government for all the lost heroes & innocent people killed in WW1 & 2; and they were clearly at fault- we can’t bring the dead back, and in many cases, the ones who would benefit, probably didn’t even know them.
      This is an outright money grab.
      The people who want a big cash settlement just want to benefit financially because of the misfortune of someone else.
      And that is not fair to today’s taxpayers, who are already supporting their bands with millions in welfare payments, that often end up mostly in the Chief’s pocket.
      They got an apology.
      Let them start to heal, and try to raise their children to be productive members of society, and hold their chiefs accountable for the disbursements of welfare to support the kids learning how to function in the modern world, rather than expect to be given money over white man’s guilt, because their forefathers lost their mostly uninhabitated land, to people eager to take advantage of its resources, and with the ability to progress and evolve.
      Haven’t we had enough of the victim, poor me, pay me attitude? It isn’t just the white people who now inhabit, & pay taxes in Canada.
      Even our “government” is not just made up of white faces any more. (Where are the token native women? Seems like Mr. Trudeau speaks with a forked tongue!) Time to let go of the past, and make peace with realizing that all the money in the world, gotten through “entitlement” will not give you back your self respect or dignity.