Aboriginal myth inspires residential schools film

A feature film about the lasting impact of Canada's residential school system on aboriginal families has been crafted from an award-winning play written by an Ottawa poet and professor.
Armand Ruffo first wrote A Windigo Tale as a play but decided to turn it into a film after noticing most homes on the reserve where his brother lived had satellite TV. ((CBC))
A feature film about the lasting impact of Canada's residential school system on aboriginal families has been crafted from an award-winning play written by an Ottawa poet and professor.

A Windigo Tale debuted Wednesday night at a private screening in Ottawa. It is the first film directed by Armand Ruffo, an Ojibway poet and a professor of aboriginal studies at Carleton University, who also wrote and produced it.

The story is based on an updated version of the traditional Anishnabe myth of the windigo.

"It's an insatiable creature that devours people, animals," Ruffo said. "As a child, I knew about the windigo. It was only later I realized its metaphorical significance."

In Ruffo's film, the creature is a metaphor for the damage inflicted on aboriginal families by Canada's church-run, government-funded residential schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gary Farmer plays Harold, a grandfather who goes on a road trip with his troubled grandson Curtis. ((A Windigo Tale))
The schools took thousands of aboriginal students away from their families and forced them to adopt Christianity and speak English and French, punishing them for speaking aboriginal languages or practicing their own cultural traditions. Some were physically, emotionally or even sexually abused. Many had trouble reintegrating with their families and communities when they returned.

Ruffo wanted to tell that story, but with a positive ending.

A Windigo Tale revolves around the fictional story of a man named Harold (played by Gary Farmer), who picks up his troubled grandson Curtis (played by Elliot Simon) from the city and drives him north. Over the course of the journey, Harold shares their family's dark history, including the role of the residential schools in their lives.

The story of the windigo is woven in through one of the characters, who becomes the windigo.

Jani Lauzon, one of the stars of the film, said the film is really about intergenerational memory.

"And how the trauma of that residential school experience has actually been passed on through generations," she said.

Reserve visit turned play into film

Ruffo wrote the script several years ago as a play, which won the CBC Arts Performance Showcase award in 2001. During a visit to his brother's house on the Fox Lake Reserve in northern Ontario, Ruffo noticed that every home there had a television satellite dish.

"So, I said to myself, if I'm going to reach the aboriginal community, I need to turn this into a film that can be broadcast," he recalled.

He took courses from well-known Canadian directors, cast aboriginal actors and cobbled together a $400,000 budget. One part of the film was shot on the Six Nations Reserve and another was filmed two years later in Ottawa and around nearby Renfrew.

Ruffo has been invited to send his film to the high-profile Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and to the ReelWorld Film Festival in Toronto.

He hopes that will lead to a broadcaster picking it up and will help the film reach a wider audience. The residential schools experience didn't just affect Canadians, he added.

"It happened all over the world — Australia, New Zealand," he said. "Indigenous peoples were denied language, culture. … It's a healing process that all of us have to go through."