Residential schools, revisited in the new film We Were Children, are one of those things that no one wants to talk about. It’s a shameful part of Canada’s history that many would prefer to ignore or to just put to rest.
The forced assimilation of First Nations children in residential schools lasted more than 130 years. Until 1996, more than 100,000 children were legally placed in Christian care. There were many atrocities and cases of abuse that occurred, leaving thousands of residential school survivors with wounds that run deep.
Lisa Meeches, an esteemed Aboriginal producer, spent more than seven years travelling across Canada to collect these survivors' stories for the federal government. The idea for We Were Children stemmed from a discussion she had at the Banff World Media Festival.
A feature-length docudrama, We Were Children tells the story of residential school survivors Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod. Their sorrowful stories unfold with deep emotion and impact for the audience: there are times of humour as well as heartbreak, but most of all their tales showcase strength and resilience. The film underlines the vast suffering of the Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their homes and put in the care of those who tried to strip them of their identities and culture.
Lisa Charleyboy is Tsilhqot’in from the interior of British Columbia. Currently living in Toronto, she's a freelance writer who has written for Indian Country Today, THIS Magazine, and MSN Canada. Sharply savvy in the ways of social media, her blog Urban Native Girl presents pop culture with an indigenous twist. Follow her ImagineNATIVE Festival coverage on CBCNews.ca/arts.
"I believe that they were trying to annihilate us and they couldn’t, because what they did to us — and everything that we had to live through — only made us stronger, made us more determined," Hart says in We Were Children. "I had so much rage. It took a long time to make peace with the church."
For Meeches, who co-produced the film with Kyle Irving, the film is for different audiences.
"We told the story for the survivors, we told the story for folks who are intergenerationally impacted and we told the story for Canadians who also have been lied to," she said.
"It’s a crime of knowledge that we [Aboriginal people] don’t know what happened to us. If Canadians knew what was making us sick, I think they would all cheer for our speedy recovery, because Canadians have a lot of compassion."
In a moderated panel discussion following the film's screening at the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival, she added: "We know now what pain looks like and now it’s our goal to capture the healing and forgiveness."
Hart added: "this is part of my healing journey, this film.
"I’m hoping that it is an inspiration for the survivors to tell their story and release it and go do the work that they need to do in order to move on beyond being a survivor."
For generations of Aboriginal people to move forward, there needs to be an open discourse about the experiences and impact of residential schools and We Were Children offers a portal for that discussion — not only for Aboriginal people, but for all Canadians alike.
Aboriginal Peoples Television Network will broadcast We Were Children in March 2013.