FrontRunners study guide helps residential school discussions

The award-winning Canadian film Niiganibatowaad: FrontRunners can now be used as a resource for churches to explore issues of racism, residential schools, and healing. The Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches have collaborated on a creative study guide [PDF] that helps Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals navigate these hot topics together.

FrontRunners tells the story of 10 young Aboriginal men chosen to carry the Pan American Games torch from St. Paul, Minn. to Winnipeg, Man. in 1967. When they arrived at the stadium, however, a non-Aboriginal runner was given the honour of carrying the torch inside. Nine of the Aboriginal men were residential school students, and the film traces their journey of suffering and reflection.

The accompanying study guide was an ecumenical and cross-cultural project. Dixie Shilling, an Aboriginal woman from a United church in Curve Lake First Nation, Ont. and Adele Finney, a non-Aboriginal Anglican from Peterborough, Ont., met many times to develop it together. Now, they say, they have started to become friends.

The spirit of friendship makes its way into the study guide, as the writers found creative ways for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal voices to be heard. The guide describes how to facilitate a talking circle, work with a co-facilitator, and use Aboriginal sacred medicines. There are also backgrounders on residential schools and churches’ current work.

One of the more creative elements of the guide is a short play that captures several Aboriginal responses to FrontRunners. The writers suggest that non-Aboriginal groups read this play aloud so that the voices of “Elder Shirley,” “Chief Joe,” and others can be heard.

The DVD and study guide were successfully tested in different focus groups, including some with young adults—all Aboriginal, all non-Aboriginal, and a mix of both. The study guide recommends additional pastoral support in some instances, as the subject matter may stir up a multitude of emotions or “trigger” reactions for some viewers.

The FrontRunners study guide is one way that Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches have collaborated to promote healing and reconciliation between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. All three of these churches ran Indian residential schools, which removed Aboriginal children from their families for education and assimilation. All three churches have formally apologized for their involvement.

The churches are now working towards the goal that there will be no residential school survivors who have not have the chance to tell their story and no church members that say “I never knew” about the history of residential schools.

In March 2008, the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United ecumenical working group organized Remembering the Children, a four-city tour that promoted the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although the commission’s work was officially launched in June of last year, it is now stalled, following the resignation of the three commissioners. The churches have expressed their strong desire for work to resume.

If your church group is interested in viewing FrontRunners, first check out the online trailer, then do one of the following:

  • Order a copy from the National Film Board, at 1-800-267-7710 or
  • Borrow a copy from the Partnerships Department, the Anglican Church of Canada. Contact Lydia Laku Kiden, program associate, director and Ecojustice, at General Synod by email, or phone (416) 924-9199 ext. 255
  • Request a copy from your local public library

The study guide is available for download, or if you would like a print copy, email Ms. Laku Kiden.

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