On my Bucket List (link in the main menu bar above) for this year abroad, one of the to-dos is ‘Write an essay on Canadian history.’ This, I appreciate, is a bit of a cop-out, bearing in mind I’m a History undergrad. Studying in Canada. But anyway.
As it stands, I haven’t actually written that many essays on Canadian history, as my Aboriginal class doesn’t really involve essays and two of my other classes are US history. However, in my Contemporary Canada class I have been getting some essays in. The most significant being the frankly TERRIBLE leadership assignment (which I still haven’t got the mark back for yet and I’m honestly dreading), but also some ‘reflections’ on films we’ve watched in class. I thought for the sake of proving I’m ticking off that Bucket List ‘to-do’ and because it might be of interest, I’d share one of my reflections on a film that really had an impact on me.
I have never been completely naive enough to buy into the ‘all Canadians are lovely!’ mentality and stereotype. Personally I think it’s a bit cringey and also I’m a cynic, and a History student cynic at that. No ‘nation’ collectively can be ascribed such an attribute, positive or negative. Before coming to Canada, I was well enough aware of mistreatment of indigenous peoples, but my understanding was limited to quite a vague ye olde colonial idea. Obviously they’d been attacked and killed and forcibly moved from their homelands – but my appreciation of the true extent of systematic abuse and oppression that First Nations, Inuit and Métis faced stopped there. Through my Aboriginal class however I’ve started to begin unpacking the treatment of indigenous peoples – and how truly awful it was and in many ways continues to be.
One of the most upsetting and profound aspects of indigenous history is without doubt the system of residential schools that dominated mid-20th century Canadian policy towards the education of aboriginal peoples. These schools were designed to implement forcible assimilation; removing children from their families as young as 4 and sentencing them to years in boarding school, where they were made to give up their native language and ascribe to a staggeringly religious-centric curriculum. The schools were poorly funded (this, you’ll find, is a theme in All Things Indigenous when it comes to the Canadian government) and even more poorly regulated; children suffered terrible abuse, mistreatment, underfeeding and general neglect. Many tried to run away, many died.
And you wanna hear the real kicker? The last school was closed in 1996. That’s in my lifetime.
In class we watched a film entitled ‘We Were Children’. Warning: it’s very, very hard watching. But it also made incredibly profound viewing, and more than anything else I think I’ve seen, heard or learnt, it really affected my understanding of indigenous suffering. My reflection on the film gives most of the ‘plot’ away, but as both a cinematographic experience and historical lesson I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
Reflection: ‘We Were Children’ (2012)
‘We Were Children’, directed by Tim Wolochatiuk presents an unflinching narrative of the experience of residential schools based on the testimonies of two survivors; Lyna Hart who attended a school in Manitoba aged 4 in 1958 and Glen Anaquod, who went to a school in Saskatchewan in the same year. While profoundly and deeply upsetting, the film offers the complete truth, from sexual abuse to kindly nurses offering midnight meals, and in that respect presents a powerful contribution to the growing narrative of residential schools.
Before watching the film, I felt I was well enough aware of the facts and figures of residential schools. 150,000 children attended schools in 150 years of operation – of those, a staggering 6,000 are estimated to have died, and it was only in 1996 that the final school was closed. I knew that the epic six volume Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015 had brought much of the truth of residential schools to light through thousands of oral testimonies and survivors interviews. I felt I appreciated the reality of residential schools, as much as a white person learning about the events in a classroom today can.
Wolochatiuk’s film however made me realise that for all my awareness of facts and dates, I really had no idea of the emotional impact and true nature of the horrors that went on at residential schools. By focusing on just two survivors’ testimonies, the film offers an intimately personal, detailed and very real narrative of the schools. While the depiction of sexual abuse, especially of Lyna’s personal experience, was harrowing to say the least, it was the little things the film paid attention to that really affected me; the powerful cinematographic image of spit dripping down children’s chins in the ‘tongue-holding punishment’, the casual manner in which Glen was told that the priest who had abused him had been “transferred to another school”, the numbering of the children in a way reminiscent of concentration camp victims, and, of course, one of the final scenes in which the actor playing Glen is seen on the verge of suicide, stopped only by the thought of making his children orphans as he had been.
As well as drawing attention to the details however, the film does cover and represent wider understood concepts about residential schools. Lyna is taken from her mother at just aged 4 – and doesn’t return home to her again until she’s 18. The complete removal of familial love from childhood represents an experience that many indigenous children faced when they were sent to residential schools. The curriculum is also shown and the intense focus on Christian religion and little recognizable education that most Canadian children would have been experiencing in the early 60s is staggering. The loss of indigenous language is also demonstrated through Lyna’s experience of tokens, and how they were removed if she spoke in her own language. Glen meanwhile admits he sometimes spoke in English “just to be hateful” even though he was beaten for it.
The film also considers another key theme of the residential schools’ system – children’s resistance to it, an experience that both Lyna and Glen shared. Lyna stole food from the kitchens, despite the risk posed to her, and spoke to the younger girls in their native language. Glen meanwhile represented a large proportion of indigenous children who attempted to escape – many of whom died in the process. He describes the elation of feeling “on top of the world” as he and his friend fled home. Even when they were forced to return back to the school the boys resisted and attacked the priest who was to deliver their punishment. Despite a beating so severe he was hospitalized, Glen expresses how he “always cherished the thought that they fought back.” These children were not passive in accepting their abuse and torment, and in many cases did everything they could to resist. Not all ‘care-givers’ at residential schools were rapists and sadists however, as the film appreciates in possibly one of the most touching aspects of the testimonies. Lyna’s telling of the kindly Sister who fed the girls in the night when they complained of hunger represents a moment of true humanity, as was Glen’s account of being rescued by a nun who bathed him with a motherly kindness.
It is impossible for me personally to imagine the experience of a residential school. My first memories of school are of attending a free-thinking kindergarten in Brisbane, which focused on learning through play outside and identifying Australian wildlife. It could not be further from Lyna’s recollection of being stripped and showered on her first day of school, before being forced to adhere to a religion that had no meaning to her in a language she couldn’t speak. Lyna says that at the time when her hair was cut it “felt like they were taking something away from me… stripping away my human, my sense of who I was.” Residential schools took far more away from children than their hair – they took away their family, their identity, their cultural worth, their language, and in many cases, their innocence.
The experiences of Lyna and Glen are ones that we can’t ever truly appreciate through facts and figures or official government documents – the few, of course, that remain, as many were destroyed. ‘We Were Children’ offers a detailed and incredibly moving account that really upset me; and this is exactly why oral testimonies and the retelling of these stories through publically accessible mediums such as film are so important. It’s perhaps in this dramatically visual way that the true nature of residential schools can best be communicated to those with no contextual understanding. The film has radically adjusted my perception to appreciate the true nature and diversity of the horrors and humanity found in residential schools, and I would most certainly recommend it to others wishing to broaden their understanding on the subject.
 Tim Wolochatiuk, ‘We Were Children’ (2012), National Film Board of Canada, http://onf-nfb.gc.ca/en/our-collection/?idfilm=58462 (last accessed November 1 2016)
Chelsea Vowel, Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Metis and Inuit Issues in Canada, (Winnipeg, 2016), p. 171.
 Anna Maria Tremonti, ‘TRC final report: Children in residential schools died escaping abuse’, The Current: CBC Radio, (December 16 2015), http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-december-16-2015-1.3367243/trc-final-report-children-in-residential-schools-died-escaping-abuse-1.3367265 (last accessed November 1 2016)