Documentary Exposes Ugly Secret of Colonialism in Canada
Native Elders stand before a church demanding an answer to the question, "Where is Maisie Shaw?" Maisie Shaw was a young girl witnesses claim was murdered at the United Church's Alberni Indian Residential School in 1946 by its Principal, Alfred Caldwell. (Ayesia Moarif 2005)
A hard-hitting documentary that made its debut at the Gabriola Island Film Festival last weekend dwells on a theme that would surprise and shock most Canadians: Canada's genocide.
Even the words sound strange. Who knew that a genocide lurked within Canada's relatively civilized history?
According to Kevin Annett, co-writer and producer of Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada's Genocide , the time has come for Canadians to learn the truth about what really happened to the aboriginal people from the start of colonialism until today.
It's not a pretty story. Unrepentant documents the "deliberate and systematic extermination" of non-Christian indigenous people within the Indian residential school system by the Catholic, United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches, in collusion with the federal government.
The film, which made its American debut last November at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival where it won Best Director of an International Documentary, is based on Annett's groundbreaking book, "Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust." Unrepentant will also be screened at various film festivals around the world.
"We want to generate international pressure on Canada and the churches to start to have full disclosure about what went on so that there can be some healing; real healing can only happen when there's been that kind of complete disclosure," Annett told The Epoch Times from his home in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
First-hand testimonies from residential school survivors are interwoven with Annett's own story of how, as a United Church minister in Port Alberni, he was fired, publicly defrocked, and had his reputation maligned by church officials after he uncovered evidence of murder and other crimes committed by the church through its Indian boarding schools.
Around 1929, the churches were given legal guardianship of all the children who attended the schools, and Annett says this gave school staff free rein to perpetrate any atrocity upon their wards without having to answer to anyone.
The list of crimes is long, and includes beatings, electric shocks, forced sterilization, medical experimentation, starvation, rape as well as various other forms of sexual abuse, and murder.
As the residential school survivors in Unrepentant tell their stories, the pain evident on their stoic faces, an understanding of what went on in those institutions gradually emerges.
Some spoke of young girls becoming pregnant as a result of rape, or nuns becoming pregnant after sexually abusing boys; some described being made to dig graves for the babies who would be killed after birth.
Rick Lavalee talked about hearing the agonized cries of his only brother as he was being tortured with a cattle prod. The boy died on the spot. Belvy Breber recounted how her brother was hanged in the gym of the Kuper Island school. She was told he'd committed suicide, but she didn't believe it. While the boy was still hanging, the other kids were paraded through the gym as a warning that this could happen to them if they didn't behave.
Of the 100,000 who went through the schools, it is estimated that at least 50,000 were killed. Many of those who died were buried in unmarked graves on or around the school grounds; most of the bodies were never returned to the families.
Harriet Nahanee, who spent five years at the Alberni Residential School, said she remembered the RCMP arriving at her village in a gunboat to round up the children who were to be taken to the school. Children as young as three were often taken even though the schools weren't supposed to accept anyone under the age of seven.
If the parents fought this abduction of their children, they were liable to be arrested under the provisions of the Indian Act, something Annett calls "a piece of race-based legislation" in that it almost completely took away the rights of the native peoples.
Germ warfare was also used. Narrator Lori O'Rorke said deliberately-spread smallpox epidemics in the 1700s and 1800s killed "untold millions" of the world's indigenous people and wiped out many Canadian aboriginals even before the residential schools began operating. Annett says approximately 98 percent of native populations on the west coast were decimated by smallpox.
Survivors in Unrepentant describe how, during a tuberculosis outbreak, they were made to play and sleep with infected children so that they too would become infected with the highly contagious disease.
While most of the schools had closed by 1984, the last federally run facility, the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.
The legacy of Canada's residential schools, says Annett, is evident in the high rates of suicide, substance abuse and poverty seen in aboriginal communities across the country. He believes he can help change this by "raising an awareness of what actually happened here and the long-term effects it's having on aboriginal people."
"The aboriginal people need recognition and to be treated with dignity and respect, and that's not happening right now. Anyone who's been abused in any way needs the crime to be recognized and named, and it really hasn't been."
Unrepentant: Kevin Annett and Canada's Genocide is written by Kevin Annett and Louie Lawless, directed by Louie Lawless, and produced by Kevin Annett, Louie Lawless and Lori O'Rorke.