Indian Horse: 10 things about the groundbreaking new Canadian film

Based on a Richard Wagamese novel, it follows a boy, forced into a residential school, who is saved by hockey

Based on a Richard Wagamese novel, it follows a boy, forced into a residential school, who is saved by hockey

Ajuawak Kapashesit plays Saul in Indian Horse, a film adaptation of the novel by Richard Wagamese. Indian Horse opens in theatres April 13. (Courtesy of Elevation Pictures)

It's a fictional film, but delivers a story that's all-too real: in the 1950s, a six-year-old Ojibwe boy is torn from his family and forced into a residential school, where he is forbidden to speak his language and faces brutal punishment for the tiniest transgressions.

His only solace comes on a sheet of ice, and his love of hockey eventually carries him to stardom. But still, his past continues to haunt him.

Indian Horse is the highly-anticipated film adaptation of the novel by acclaimed Canadian author Richard Wagamese, and one that has already won multiple awards — including the People's Choice Award at the Vancouver Film Festival. 

The film opens in theatres across Canada April 13, so we've gathered 10 fascinating facts — from the novel's inspiration to the elder actress who experienced the residential school system first-hand.

Richard Wagamese's novel started out as a hockey story

When he set out to write the novel, acclaimed Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese wanted to write a hockey book; it wasn't until later that it veered into far darker territory.

"I just wanted to write a hockey novel," explained Wagamese, who died just over a year ago, in a 2012 interview with the Calgary Herald. "There was an actual dream, alternate-reality sequence in which Saul Indian Horse faces off in a one-on-one shootout with Vladislav Tretiak. It was very much a 'Shoeless Joe-does-hockey' kind of story, with a residential school as a very, very nebulous kind of background."

However, Wagemese's parents and grandparents were both residential school survivors, and soon that legacy became a central focus of the story. Wagemese explained the story isn't about politics, because the roots of the residential school system are far deeper and more tangled. 

"I don't know, in this novel, if Saul Indian Horse is affected by politics," Wagamese said. "He's affected by religiosity. He's affected by an over-abiding sense of entitlement on the part of settler folk and settler culture and certainly settler government. He's affected by the gradual dissolution of his cultural and traditional way. When I was writing and considering it, I wasn't thinking it was so much a political issue as it was an emotional and a spiritual and a psychic issue."

Clint Eastwood was astonished by the story

Canadian director Stephen S. Campanelli has been working as a camera operator for Clint Eastwood for over 20 years, and when he showed the film to the legendary actor and director, Eastwood was astonished by the horrors of Canada's notorious residential school system.

"He didn't believe it," said Campanelli, who grew up in Montreal and lives in California, at last year's Toronto International Film Festival.

"He was like, 'What? You Canadians did this?' I said, 'Yeah, believe it or not.' He said, 'How come no one knows about this?' I said, 'Well, they will soon."'

Eastwood signed on as executive producer.

Late author Richard Wagamese, who wrote the novel Indian Horse, approved the script and the filmmakers before his untimely death in 2017. (CBC)

The plot spans 30 years

The plot of the film follows Saul Indian Horse, from his experience at an Ontario Catholic residential school where he faced abuse and the stripping away of his culture, to adulthood where he has moved up the ranks in the hockey world. There, after a series of racist attacks, Saul is forced to confront his painful history.

"I think a film like this will actually help a lot of people understand, because it doesn't really pull a lot of punches but it is still very cinematic," said Ajuawak Kapashesit, who is of Ojibway and Cree heritage and was born in Moose Factory, Ont., and plays Saul as an adult. 

The characters speak the Ojibway language

In Indian Horse, the Indigenous characters speak the Ojibway language, and their dialogue is subtitled — an especially potent fact given that many residential schools aimed to eradicate Indigenous languages. Interestingly, outside of acting, Kapashesit is a trained linguist who focuses on language revitalization and documentation. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Actor Sladen Peltier plays Saul Indian Horse as a young boy — and for one scene, had to cut off his braids. (Courtesy Elevation Pictures)

Each shooting day began with a ceremony

During shooting, the filmmakers were careful to honour the very culture they were portraying, and allowed elders to launch each shooting day with a smudging and prayer ceremony — even if it wasn't always convenient.

"These ceremonies sometimes took up to 45 minutes," said Campanelli in an interview. "We're losing the light, we're shooting in winter in northern Ontario, and 45 minutes is a huge chunk of day. But because of the weight of the subject matter, we had to be very respectful."

Young actor Sladen Peltier actually cuts his hair

There's a scene in the film where, as a young boy, Saul's long braid gets cut off — a potent symbol of the quashing of Indigenous culture, history and identity — and it's not film-world trickery. 

Young actor Sladen Peltier had been growing his hair since age five, and he says when he was first offered the role, he was reluctant. "I didn't really want to go in this movie if I had to get my hair cut," he said

But he has several older relatives who went to residential school, and realized it could help teach others, so Peltier and his family agreed to the sacrifice — a single-take moment where his braid is removed.

Forrest Goodluck, who played Leonardo DiCaprio's son in The Revenant, was a talented actor — but he admits he had no idea how to play hockey. (Elevation Pictures)

Forrest Goodluck didn't know how to play hockey

Actor Forrest Goodluck, who plays Saul as a teen, made his acting debut in 2015, as Leonardo DiCaprio's son in The Revenant, so he had the acting chops for the Indian Horse role — but he admits he wasn't entirely honest about one key qualification for Indian Horse: he said he knew how to play hockey, when in fact he had never even put on skates. Fortunately, he was a very quick study. Kapashesit was also new to the sport.

Filming was a powerful experience for all involved

The film has already won awards at several film festivals in Canada and is being praised for its powerful and emotionally-charged depiction of the legacy of Canada's residential schools.

But it was also a deeply moving and inspiring experience for the filmmakers, crew and cast, which included 52 Indigenous actors. 

"Some moments were tremendously difficult to watch and many of them cried tears at many of the scenes. Hugs and laughter were part of their daily lives, too," said Indian Horse producer Christine Haebler. "The love and support for each other and the connection that they were making something important was palpable every moment on set. The filming experience changed lives."

The film was shot primarily in Sudbury and Peterborough, Ont., but ripples of the production travelled much farther. 

"It changed the way many of the crew from Toronto, B.C., Quebec and other places experienced Indigenous culture," said Haebler, "and it created new opportunities for many Indigenous people within the communities they were shooting in."

The actress who plays Saul's grandmother is a residential school survivor

Edna Manitowabi plays Saul's grandmother in the film — but she also has first-hand experience of Canada's residential schools: when she was six years old, her mother, under threat of arrest, put her on a bus and sent her away to residential school. 

"All of us were taken," she said in an interview. "I was the last. When I saw the look of horror on my mum's face when she put me on the bus, I wondered what was going on. Nobody told me. Nothing was explained. But that look on her face was imprinted on my psyche." 

Now 77, Manitowabi — a longtime Trent University professor and advocate for Indigenous people — says her experience as a survivor inspired her to take on the role in the film. 

"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," she said in a CBC interview.

"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,'" she said. "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."

The film's main goal is to keep people talking about Canada's dark legacy, and about reconciliation

Director Campanelli says the film is not only meant to expose the dark legacy of Canada's residential school system and its enduring effects, it's also a call to action.

"Our biggest goal for this movie is to keep the conversation going," he said. "To be able to give people an opinion to say, 'Wow, I can't believe this happened. How can I help? Let's have a call to action. Let's do something about this. Let's get mad. Let's call the government, or whatever we can do to help this go on.'

"Because it's going to take a while. Reconciliation is not a quick thing," said Campanelli. "It's going to take everybody's effort to make it work."


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