Inuvik-“What’s that?” “Not interested.” “I don’t know anything about that.”
When two Yellowknife teenagers asked youth in their community what they knew about the experiences of aboriginal people in residential schools, these were the common responses they got.
Marlisa Brown and Molly Tilden captured these responses in Our Truth: The Youth Perspective on Residential Schools, a searing documentary that they showed at the Northern Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) held here June 27 to July 1.
The documentary, which also explored the question of whether lack of knowledge has given way to racism, revealed that some harboured negative attitudes toward aboriginal people, saying most are alcoholics who beat up their children.
Those who suffered abuse and lost their culture as a consequence of having attended residential schools should not be given any special consideration, said one young man. “The way I see it, they had a choice,” he said. “They had a choice to consume that alcohol. They had a choice to smoke that drug.”
Brown, who is half Gwich’in and half White, and Tilden, who is White, decided to produce a documentary after they attended a recent workshop on residential schools organized by the International Center for Transitional Justice.
“The past needs to be acknowledged, never repeated, never forgotten,” said the teenagers, who offered a copy of their documentary during a session on Gestures of Reconciliation.
They also wanted to send a message to survivors. “We wanted to show that we appreciate their strength,” said Brown.
The lack of knowledge about the residential schools experience is real, they added, and must be addressed. “It’s sad because they (Yellowknife youth) live amidst survivors,” said Brown.
The audience, which included former residential school students, gave Brown and Tilden a standing ovation.
“I’m filled with emotion and pride,” said Barney Williams, chair of the Residential Schools Survivor Committee. “I’m so proud of these young ladies. They took the risk of asking these questions and handling the hard answers.”
The documentary will form part of the archives of the TRC, which is mandated to gather the testimonies of former residential school students and to educate Canadians about the 130-year legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada. The creation of the TRC is part of the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement involving former students, the federal government and churches- including the Anglican Church of Canada-which administered the federally-funded schools.
More than 1,000 former students, members of their families, representatives of churches and government, and local residents participated in the event. The event adopted the theme, It’s About Courage-A National Journey Home, which the TRC said was inspired by the experiences shared by 500 former students at hearings conducted by commissioners across Canada’s North early this year.