It has been 25 years since the Canadian film Where the Spirit Lives was released on television. It is the story of a young First Nation woman, Ashtoh-Komi, forcibly removed from her community and taken to an Indian residential school. The film was considered groundbreaking and arguably the first time many Canadian audiences saw what the schools were like, albeit dramatized.
I recently re-watched Where the Spirit Lives, perhaps coincidentally, on Nov. 11. I couldn’t help but notice the Remembrance Day captions that appeared on the screen and how they could be applied to the experiences of the children in the movie and to real life.
Lest we forget. Never forget. We will remember them.
In Canada more than 150,000 Indigenous children attended residential schools, which were run by the federal government and churches. Beginning in 1820, more than 130 residential schools were in operation. The last school only closed in 1996.
While at the schools, children were stripped of their culture and language, and many suffered physical and sexual abuse. Many of the children never returned home.
It is not known exactly how many Indigenous children died at the residential schools. Only recently have some provinces handed over records detailing the deaths of children to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with detailing and documenting the history of the schools.
Early this spring, the province of British Columbia released 4,900 records, chronicling the deaths of children ages 4 to 19. That number could conceivably rise as other provinces are expected to follow suit.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the children at residential schools died because of disease or accident. Some children ran away and froze to death, or simply disappeared. Survivors of the schools have told stories of their peers being killed through physical abuse.
Yet it's a brutal history far too many Canadians know nothing about.
Where the Spirit Lives had a non-Indigenous director and producers, but writer Keith Leckie wanted to tell the history of the residential school system to the dominant society. Over two decades later, it seems that history is still struggling to be brought to light.
Since the film was first broadcast in 1989, we have seen an abundance of material about residential schools, including a settlement agreement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Other amazing documentary films such as We Were Children have also emerged. Spearheaded by Ojibwe producer and filmmaker Lisa Meeches, this film tells the stories of residential school survivors from an Indigenous perspective. In addition, dozens of smaller short films have been completed independently by Indigenous filmmakers covering this history.
But these incredible works and initiatives still haven’t done for residential schools what Schindler's List did for the Holocaust or Saving Private Ryan (and countless others) have done for World War II.
Ask anyone in Canada what the schools were and you're likely to be met with shrugs or blank stares.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final national event took place in March 2014. The commission’s chair, Justice Murray Sinclair, told reporters that it's not just up to Indigenous peoples to heal and come to terms with their past.
Sinclair said everyone in Canada should push themselves to learn more about one another and work toward reconciliation.
I can only hope the next 25 years see more change to make that a reality.