I love going to the movies. Last week I ventured away from the typical Hollywood fodder and chose to see the Canadian film adaptation of Richard Wagamese’s novel “Indian Horse”. This is the story of Saul Indian Horse, a young First Nations boy torn from his Ojibway family and placed into one of the most notorious Catholic run Indian residential schools in Ontario.
The movie was transparent in nature as it depicted the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, as seen and experienced by Saul. It didn’t dwell on the actions perpetuated by the nuns and priests, but concentrated on the affects that it had, not only on him, but on the First Nations community as a whole.
I thought I knew Canadian history quite well but I was left to squirm in my seat and ask why. Why did this happen? Why didn’t I know that Indian residential schools were around for almost a hundred years, the last one not closing until 1996? Did I miss that lesson in school or university? I certainly don’t remember studying (or being made aware of), the Canadian government’s aggressive assimilation practices involving First Nations people. Perhaps I was so wrapped up in my own life that it wasn’t on my radar, but I feel like a dirty little secret was happening in my own backyard and I knew nothing about it—and I know I’m not alone in my ignorance of this history.
Saul, like the other children, is alone. He’s isolated away from his family, language, and culture. He is witness to the horrors of fellow residents being caged, tied up, and even taking their own life. As a distraction he becomes fascinated by the game of ice hockey. He studies the game and works hard to learn to skate and play. The rink and the game are his safe place—it’s his escape from the misery of his everyday existence.
As a young man he is recruited by the Toronto Maple Leaf farm team and seemed destined for a professional hockey career. He was met though, with toxic and bigoted treatment from his teammates, audience, and media, to a point where Saul began to fight more than skate, and he eventually left the game. The magic of the rink was gone and his personal demons, along with the nature of society, took him down a path of self-destruction. Faced with blatant racism and prejudice, Saul fell into a life of alcoholism and homelessness which were mere cloaks for his childhood traumas and true pain.
The movie was hard to watch. I wanted to reach into the screen and pull that little boy away from the situation. I wanted to protect and shelter all of those children. I wanted to stop the tears, the hurt, the pain. I wanted to return those babies to the laps of their mothers and fathers, their grandparents, and aunties. I wanted to scream at the unfair treatment foisted upon others due to ignorance, preferential powers, and discriminatory behaviour. I could hear weeping in the theatre and it’s then that it becomes real—it becomes personal. This isn’t just some whimsical film, it’s our history—not just the First Nations population, but the history of every Canadian.
It was poet Maya Angelou who said “… when you know better, do better.” It is a time of educating, healing, and moving forward. The discussion is open. If you get a chance to see the movie let me know what you think. Note: this movie is rated 14A for a reason.