This past Friday (Feb.28), I was invited to a screening of the documentary We Were Children (2012) at Fraser Lands Church located on SE Marine Drive. The night was part of an awareness campaign on the suffering First Nations children endured in church-run residential schools across Canada.
The three hour event was called Journey Together, Heal Together. In addition to the film, it included First Nations speakers who had personal connections to Indian residential schools.
When I arrived, the first surprise was the large turnout at the event. The parking lot was full, and there were rows of parked cars lining the street outside the church. Inside, there must have been close to 200 people sitting in the pews.
As the story unfolded, it became harder and harder to watch. Graphic details about sexual, physical, mental, and emotional abuse surfaced. (Many of which I had never known before).
One of two main narrators of the film, Glen Anaquod, was an orphan when he was taken to a school in Saskatchewan. As a young boy, a priest tricked Anaquod to follow him to a basement in the priest’s home. The priest locked Anaquod in a dark cell, and was raped along with another girl who was also locked up.
As a teenager, Anaquod and a friend attempted to escape. They ran to his aunt’s nearby home seeking safety. The aunt eventually notified school teachers and took the boys away. As punishment, they were beaten by a group of priests and had to stay in the infirmary for a week to recover.
Anaquod died in 2011, a year before the film released. It was his greatest wish that his story be shared.
These experiences took a toll on the survivors long after they leave residential schools. Ivan Wells, from the Tsimpsian Nation, didn’t attend a residential school but his father was taken at five years old to one in Port Alberni. His father was a ‘lively’ young boy. To quell his energy, school officials ‘cemented his feet together.’
Wells recalled how his father was incapable of fathering his children because he was orphaned at a young age. Until he was 17, Wells was tormented by his father’s abusive outbursts. Wells recounts being beaten with sticks, shoes and bottles by his father. Unless his father was drunk, the children lived in constant fear of being beaten.
In total, about 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their families and forced into residential schools. In the 1800’s, the Canadian government thought the best chances for Aboriginals to succeed in the industrialization age was to undergo assimilation in these schools. They were forced to speak English, adopt Christianity, and adhere to Canadian customs.
The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996.