KAMLOOPS — I have been looking forward to seeing the movie Indian Horse from the day my friend Richard mentioned the possibility of it happening. That was a few years ago. He was humbled and beyond happy. He was giddy with joy, and who could fault him for that.
The book carries a powerful story within it, anyone who has read it knows that. Though fictional, much of what lives on those pages pertains to heartbreaking true stories that residential school survivors in Canada have lived through. Also, to the racism that still lives and breathes in our society. As for the optimistic view that racism is almost a thing of the past, let’s not kid ourselves. We’re still handling it like a hot potato, which is why Richard Wagamese’s books and others like it are needed. Moreover, they are vital.
Fast forward to Saturday evening when the Paramount theatre screened Indian Horse as the closing feature of the Kamloops Film Festival. If there ever was a movie that could close the festival with a big bang, this was it. It’s a movie that carries a lot of beauty, pain and hope. It carries the shadows and it explains why the stigma of addiction adds to the heaviness of it all, while what we should be striving for instead is lightness brought on by non-judgment.
It’s been a year since Richard moved on. I wrote then about his legacy, not just as a writer but as a dear friend. He is missed, without a doubt, and seeing the movie brought his memory back in a way that I had not anticipated. He was present in every frame. Though his way with words was a gentle one, a song of sorts that he put together through each story he wove, the words that surface as the movie unravels create a storm that aligns with the one the Truth and Reconciliation chapter of Canadian history has created.
The movie experience was enhanced by the period of questions and answers following the screening when survivors who were in the audience made their thoughts and memories known. It’s hard to look the other way or minimize this long and dark period that took the lives of so many Indigenous children and left a painful imprint on the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, one that still haunts their descendants.
One of the things that struck me the most came from one of the producers, Christine Haebler. She talked about a focus group that got to see the trailer and share their impressions and how interested they were in the movie premise. The 25 to 35 years old group knew the least history of the residential schools and was least interested in the movie; mostly Canadian-born, Ms. Haebler said. Why is that worrying, you ask? Because they are to carry the torch of knowledge, compassion and true reconciliation as each young generation should. The future is built with the blocks each generation carves out of the history files.
Opinions such as ‘residential schools taught indigenous kids about city life’ and ‘Indigenous kids got to learn English’ are not only deplorable but damaging to the process that is to save a people’s history and revive their language and heritage. Which ultimately belongs to all Canadians and is part of what our children need to learn.
As one elderly lady, a survivor herself, said, some of the stories are hard to tell children, as they are too intense. The reason we must do it though is because it was children who lived through them.
That alone creates the obligation to learn about it and acknowledge it through educating ourselves and our children.
A couple of years ago my youngest and I were at the Secwepemc Museum, in the Heritage Park area. The apple trees were loaded with fruit. One of the visitors asked if anyone picks them. The answer was the most heartbreaking I had heard in a long time: ‘There are children buried in the garden, some sources say, so no one picks the apples…’ I held my son’s hand and wondered ‘what if? What would I do…?’ Suddenly the distance from where I was standing to the farthest point on the horizon seemed infinitely smaller than the one my mind would have had to travel to answer those questions. Truly, no one should look the other way. Humanity obliges.
The legacy left by Indigenous writers like Richard Wagamese is not a guide to remembering that the strong spirit of the survivors will prevail. It is about honouring the pain and grief that has been walking without a name among us for too long. As expected, the movie Indian Horse, which will return to the Paramount on April 13, brings so much of that in full light. I urge you to go see it if you haven’t yet. It is not just a movie, it’s a conversation and a stepladder towards bringing back the dignity of a people.