Mike Downie

Speaker


Mike Downie

Co-Creator, Secret Path | Documentary Filmmaker

When Mike Downie first heard the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack—an Ojibway boy who died while running away from his residential school—it was like an arrow shot through his heart. Haunted, he shared the story with his brother, celebrated musician Gord Downie, and the two vowed to find a way to tell it to the world. The result was their multi-media project Secret Path, consisting of a music album and a graphic novel (by Jeff Lemire), and an animated film that has captured the hearts and minds of Canadians. Using Chanie’s story as a starting point, Mike leads the audience along the journey that he and Gord travelled as they developed Secret Path with the Wenjack family. Mike asks all Canadians to follow his brother’s lead, and imagine a more inclusive and equitable country — a new country, a new Canada.

A celebrated storyteller, Mike is writer, director, and producer of numerous documentaries. He recently won a Canadian Screen Award, and the Allan King Award for Documentary Excellence for Secret Path. He is also a CSA winner for Best Science Documentary for Invasion of the Brain Snatchers. He received a Gemini Award for Best Direction, and a nomination for the Allan King Award for his film, One Ocean. He also won a Gemini Award for his film, The Hockey Nomad.

Mike is co-founder of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund, part of the movement to jumpstart reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Before his career in film and television, Mike worked as a deep shaft miner in Northern Ontario; a medical researcher at McGill University; a junior economist in Toronto; and as a windsurfing instructor in the US Virgin Islands. He holds a Bachelor of Science with Honours from Queen’s University, and an MBA from York University’s Schulich School of Business.


Secret Path

When Mike Downie first heard the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack, it was like an arrow shot through his heart. Haunted by the story, he and his brother, musician Gord Downie, vowed to find a way to tell it to the world. The result was their multi-media project, consisting of a music album and a graphic novel and film (with artist Jeff Lemire), that has captured the hearts and minds of Canadians across the country.

Using Chanie’s story as a starting point, Mike takes audiences through the dark chapter of residential schools in Canada, and helps people to understand the importance of reconciliation with history and the need for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together.

Mike also explains his own journey on the “path”, explaining how undertaking the project has transformed him, and that “life’s most important moments are never a choice—they’re a force pushing you, and when you learn to trust the invisible hand on the small of your back, it will guide you into the great unknown.”

Chasing Down a Dream

For over 30 years, Mike Downie had a front row seat to his brother Gord’s meteoric musical career. Watching Gord chase down his dreams is what inspired Mike to pursue his own, and go after them with everything he had.

Mike has had quite a few “dreams” over the course of his life, and they have carried him far. He started off as a deep shaft miner in northern Ontario after dropping out of high school. A few years later, he hitchhiked to Kingston, and enrolled at Queen’s University, with the dream of getting into med school. When that didn’t work out, he became a windsurfing instructor in the Caribbean. After shaking the sand out of his shoes, he went back to school for his MBA, and later became a junior economist in downtown Toronto. But soon he was on the move again, first becoming a music video director, then a television producer, who helped launch CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Eventually, he became an award-winning documentary director, filming in locations all over the world.

In 2013, Mike and Gord started down the tracks together with a dream bigger than the both of them: They decided to try to find a way to tell the story of Chanie Wenjack, a little boy trying to get home from his residential school in 1966, with the aim of fundamentally changing the way Canadians look at themselves and their relationship with Indigenous people. That shared dream became the multi-media project Secret Path, which has gone on to capture the hearts and minds of millions of Canadians.

In this compelling talk, Mike uses these ”turning point” stories from his life — in a humorous and insightful way — to inspire others to go out and unabashedly chase down their own dreams.

He explains why sometimes the circuitous route is the best route, and shares some of the ideas and strategies he employed to take him from one passion to another, and how that journey – and the highs and lows of failure and success he found while on it — is what ultimately led him to develop his love for film and television, and to create his most personally meaningful project to date.