'It is our truth': Indian Horse actor, residential school survivor says the film is no fiction

Seven decades ago, Edna Manitowabi was taken from her home in Manitowaning on Manitoulin Island.

'I really feel that the time is right and people are ready to listen'

Indian Horse, the film adaptation of Richard Wagamese's acclaimed novel of the same name, tells the story of young Indigenous boy at an Ontario residential school. (Devonshire Productions)

Seven decades ago, Edna Manitowabi was taken from her home in Manitowaning on Manitoulin Island, Ont.

Under threat of arrest, her mother placed Manitowabi on a bus, sending her away to a residential school.

"When I was six years old, this is what happened," Manitowabi said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Wednesday. 

"This is how I was taken." 

Now 77, Manitowabi said a desire to share her experience as a survivor inspired her to be a part of the 2017 Canadian film Indian Horse.

"I wanted to tell my story and leave a legacy to my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren that this is the traumatic history of our people, and I wanted them to know that I have been through that." 

Manitowabi acts in the film adaptation of Richard Wagamese's acclaimed novel which tells the story of Saul, an Ojibway boy who finds solace in hockey while enduring the horrors of a government-sanctioned Ontario residential school in the late 1950s.

The film, which had Clint Eastwood as its executive producer, opens in theatres across the country this Friday. Manitowabi was in Edmonton for a private screening of the film on Wednesday. 

Filming the work was cathartic, said Manitowabi. 

'We can't be silenced'

"Since the '60s I have been telling my own story but it was never really taken to heart. It was always, 'Get over it. Stop crying about the past.'

"But I really, really felt strongly that we have to tell our stories, that we can't be silenced and that's the way that we lift up our people." 

Manitowabi has long been an advocate for Indigenous peoples and has a deep sense of duty to the traditional teachings, medicine and ceremony. 

During her long tenure as a professor at Trent University, she was instrumental in the creation of Nozhem Theatre, the university's dedicated Aboriginal performance space. She has also served as the traditional cultural director for the Native Theatre School, the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and the Banff Aboriginal Dance Program. 

During her more than two decades in academia and the arts, she's shared her knowledge with countless students, but wanted to reach a larger audience.

Even though the book is fiction it is our story. It is our truth. - Edna Manitowabi

She auditioned and was offered the role of Naomi, the main character's grandmother.

Manitowabi said she is "wholeheartedly thankful" to Wagamese for the opportunity to use his words. The author died in 2017.

Indian Horse is an honest, unflinching look at the racism and cruelties Indigenous children were forced to endure.

Manitowabi said it's a difficult, emotional script. It brought her to tears the first time she watched it, but she believes Canadian audiences are ready to listen. 

"Richard, because of his life, what he's been through, it's real. It did happen," she said. "Even though the book is fiction it is our story. It is our truth. 

"I really feel that the time is right and people are ready to listen. 

"People are ready to hear the truth and we need to find that compassion in our hearts that this is what happened  because it was hidden. It was hidden for far too long."