Film tells stories of residential school survivors

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By Marites (Tess) Sison, Anglican Journal

In We Were Children, Alicia Hamelin plays a young Cree who was taken from her loving home and placed in an Indian Residential School. EAGLE VISION INC./ENTERTAINMENT ONE/NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA
In We Were Children, Alicia Hamelin plays a young Cree who was taken from her loving home and placed in an Indian Residential School. EAGLE VISION INC./ENTERTAINMENT ONE/NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA

We Were Children, a film that chronicles the lives of two survivors of the residential schools system in Canada, will be among the Canadian entries to the 2012 Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) Sept. 27 to Oct. 12.

Using compelling interviews and vivid re-enactments, the docudrama tells the stories of Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod, who were four and six, respectively, when they were taken from their families and put into church-run residential schools. Hart was sent to the Guy Hill Residential School in Manitoba; Anaquod went to the Lebret Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Both were subjected to the social isolation and cultural assimilation that was part of the federal government’s policy to “kill the Indian in the child.”  Both were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

“We have to tell the story,” says Lisa Meeches–one of the film’s executive directors– whose own parents and older siblings went to residential schools. “There’s a huge misconception about what happened during the time that the aggressive assimilation policy was being forced on First Nations people,” she said in an interview. “It’s important for me, for my non-aboriginal friends and colleagues and for Canadians to know the truth, to know that they were lied to as well.”

For more than 150 years, about 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were removed from their homes and sent to federally-funded schools managed by Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. The film’s director, Tom Wolochatiuk, who is non-aboriginal, says hearing the stories of survivors made him angry and embarrassed. “Why wasn’t this taught to me when I studied history in school?”  Wolochatiuk asks in a press statement. “How could such an ugly yet important part of our history be so effectively swept under the rug?”

While the film documents the abuse both Hart and Anaquod suffered at the school, it also documents their indomitable spirit. A particularly poignant scene shows Hart being forced to hold her own tongue as punishment for speaking Cree. With saliva running down her chin, she escapes the pain and humiliation by imagining the horses on her family’s farm and how they, too, would drool. “I used my imagination to feel safe,” says Hart in the film. “I retreated there a lot.”

Anaquond died in 2011 before the film’s completion, but Meeches held a private screening for his family. “They were so emotional. It was the first time they’d seen him since his death,” she recalls. “When you saw how beautiful this family was that he raised, you wouldn’t think that this was the same guy.”

We Were Children also benefited from a strong cast that included veteran Canadian actors as well as an ensemble of children from Cree communities in northern Manitoba. They had no previous acting experience but fully embraced the enormity of the students’ experiences, says Meeches.

Her hope is that the next generation of filmmakers will feel inspired to make their own films about the residential schools experience, much as new films about the Holocaust were made after Schindler’s List. Meeches would also like to see and possibly produce a film that explores reconciliation between aboriginal people and that churches that ran the schools.

Meeches says her grandparents and other elders often ask her whether churches are sincere in wanting to establish right relations with aboriginal people. She assures them that they are although she doesn’t believe that the story is “getting out” to people.

Shot in Winnipeg and St. Pierre-Jolys, Man., We Were Children was co-produced by Meeches and Irving for Eagle Vision Inc., Loren Mawhinney for eOne Television and David Christensen for the National Film Board of Canada. For screening times at the VIFF, click here.

There will be a blog post at the National Film Board ( during the film’s premiere at VIFF, which will include a button where people can click if they wish to host a screening.

We Were Children will also be shown at the ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto on Oct. 18. It will be available on DVD on April 12, 2013, through the National Film Board of Canada.

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