CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 14. . . .December 6, 2013
Between 1850 and 1996, 150,000 Aboriginal children in Canada were legally forced to attend residential schools. These schools were “designed originally to integrate the Aboriginal population into ‘Canadian society’.” Whatever the intent of these schools was, we now know that horrendous stories of abuse and racism abound. Even though the Canadian government formally apologized for these schools in June 2008, the residual damage continues. We Were Children tells the stories of Lyna Hart and Glen Anaquod, children taken from their homes and put through a government and church sponsored hell.
Weaving personal accounts and dramatized scenes, the film allows both Lyna and Glen to tell their experiences as their stories are presented by young actors. While the vile acts done to many of the residential school survivors have been told many times, seeing them dramatized through the eyes of children makes the reality particularly horrendous.
Manitoba 1958. A very young Lyna is shown at the start of the film being bathed and prepared by her mother for some important event. Her mother tells her, “Remember to be good.” When the strange vehicle comes to pick her up to take her away, Lyna has no idea what is in store for her. Even though her mother bathed her, upon her arrival at the school, Lyna is taken to be showered, dusted with DDT and has her hair cut. No one explains to her what is going on, and, as she speaks no English, she does not understand what is being said. As the sour-faced nun instructs the younger nun on the nature of the children, she says: “The Savage doesn’t believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Lyna, as an adult, states that they were “stripping away the sense of who I was.”
South Saskatchewan 1958. Glen also is taken to a residential school and renamed 118. As an adult, he says that they thought “the government would build schools on the reserve, but they built them far away.” The parents were threatened with “Jail if you didn’t send kids to school”. The children were punished for speaking their own language. French or English was acceptable as they were “God’s language.” Glen’s experiences are also given a dramatic treatment as he witnesses the abuses done to others as well as himself. At one point, a priest locked him in a storage room for several days. In another storage room near him, Glen could hear abuses being done to other children. Whatever the priest had in store for him, the plan was thwarted when Glen was rescued by a nun. The priest was removed from the school, but the film makes it clear that he was simply moved to another school.
Lyna also witnesses violations done to the other children and becomes a victim herself. Hunger, loneliness, racism and abuse were all part of her daily life. She recalls when a kind nun broke the rules and prepared a solid meal for the girls when she learned that the children were hungry. This story is also acted out and sadly is the only heart-warming scene in the film. For the most part, Lyna’s experiences were negative and damaging.
Once released from the schools, many of the former students found it difficult to adjust to life outside. The attempt to make them fit into the white society resulted in a group of people ill-equipped for life. Glen states that they “Couldn’t handle the freedom. Lots of my friends died alcohol related deaths, suicides. I came so close to doing that.” While he describes how he felt, a dramatization shows Glen taking his rifle into the woods with the plan to die. However, the pleading of his children help stop him.
Glen states that his “Anger has turned to sadness over what happened. Hopefully it’ll never happen again.” At the time the film was made, there were “80,000 residential school survivors.” The formal apology relayed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done little to assuage Lyna’s anger: “I believe they were trying to annihilate us, but they couldn’t. They only made us stronger and more determined.” Glen says, “What happened then didn’t have to happen, but don’t keep it a secret; don’t hide it.” While Glen passed away in 2011, he told his daughter that his greatest wish was “that one day his story would be told."
The title, We Were Children, works on two levels. The obvious, that these were children and this should never have happened to them, but also it could be stated in a tone of outrage. We were children! How could anyone have allowed that to happen?
While the message of the film is vital for all to know, We Were Children is far too long for use in a classroom. The power lies in the adult voices of Lyna and Glen. The dramatizations, while stylishly filmed, go on longer than necessary, but they do capture the terror experienced by the children. This film tells only two of the thousands of stories that have not been told. These stories must be told.
Two inaccuracies stick out. When young Lyna is being cleaned by the nuns, the comment of the sour-faced nun about the children’s cleanliness was said in English. Lyna did not understand English at that point. When Glen is in the classroom, the children are led in the Lord’s Prayer, and the priest adds, “For thine is the Kingdom…” That was not part of the Catholic version of the prayer in 1958.
Overall, We Were Children is a disturbing and moving film which should be viewed by educators in preparation for teaching anything about the residential school issue. There is applicability for teachers of Law, Civics, Native Studies, History, Sociology, Family Studies, Politics. All Canadians should watch this film, thereby allowing all the Lynas and Glens to have their stories told.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.