Where the Spirit Lives was released unceremoniously to an unsuspecting Canadian public in 1989 on CBC Television. Written by Keith Ross Leckie and directed by Bruce Pittman, it featured then unknown Indigenous actor Michelle St. John as Amelia, a young Kainai girl abducted by the Canadian state and forced into a child prison known as a residential school.
Although Amelia rejects colonization and successfully runs away from the prison, Where the Spirit Lives was released in a time when the subject of residential schools was largely ignored or minimized. For this reason the director had to play it safe by crafting the story of a kinder and gentler oppressor that would be more palatable to the Canadian public. In 2012, four years after Canada’s public apology for the primary role they played in cultural genocide, the National Film Board of Canada released the documentary We Were Children, which took a much more realistic approach to the horrors of residential schools.
It was time that our own people took on the responsibility of exposing Canada by setting the record straight. We Were Children portrays the firsthand accounts of residential school survivors Lyna Hart, and Glen Anaquod.
This documentary was the vision of Indigenous producer Lisa Meeches whose parents and older siblings were forced into residential school and who was negatively affected by the systematic racism of these violent institutions. For 130 years Indigenous children were forced into these Government-funded schools to be beaten down, raped and humiliated.
The message Canada gave us was very clear: “Our ways are better than your ways.” Hart said that it was the first time she had shared her story and that her involvement was a key step in her personal healing process.
The story these survivors share is raw and unapologetic. It cannot be properly put into words, especially English words, the depth of shame, hatred and agony that Indigenous people experience when reliving these stories. It happened to all of us. Either first hand or second hand we all are affected by the approach Canada took when they decided to ‘kill the Indian within the child to save the man’.
Six Nations residential school survivor Geronimo Henry recalls his traumatic experiences by saying “It was like a prison, but we had done nothing wrong. We were just kids.” Our people committed the crime of being born Indian here in our own land. It’s not our fault. We didn’t deserve those abuses and treatment.
We are not a worthless people. Quite the opposite in fact, our people had been living here for thousands of years in precious peace. Our languages and culture prove that fact. Look at these words:
O Gwadeni:deo means taking care of our own.
Adenidao:hsra means compassion and kindness.
Dedwadadriwanohwa:k means respecting one another.
Degayenawa’ko:ngye’ means working together.
Gaihwaedahgoh means taking responsibility.
Oihwadogehsra means being truthful and consistent.
Sge:no, the word we use every day to say hello means peaceful thoughts and actions. Think of all the wampum belts that represent peace and friendship. We can be proud of our Indigenous legacy. Hatred, anger, jealousy and greed doesn’t have a place in our society and never did.
Historians and scholars call us the Great Warriors, but we did not invent machine guns, tanks and nuclear bombs. It’s not that we couldn’t invent them — we didn’t want to. If anything, Europeans are the Great Warriors, their culture is built upon death and destruction, not ours.
History will show that Canada is able to win wars fought against little children. All the assumptions and accusations that we were barbaric savages in need of civilizing does not stand in the face of the evidence. There was a greedy group of European savages such as Duncan Campbell Scott and John A. McDonald that wanted our land — end of story.
So today in 2016 there is absolutely no reason why anyone should be apathetic or ignorant of the enormous residential school issue. It is your responsibility as a citizen of Canada and as a human to watch these films and become informed and aware.