As a fitting closure to the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada on Sept. 30, Neskonlith councillor and knowledge keeper Louis Thomas hosted a film focusing on truths about residential schools.
“I get a little sentimental when I see this film as my mother is in it and I miss her,” he said as he introduced the documentary, The Fallen Feather: Indian industrial residential schools and Canadian Confederation, to the small group at Neskonlith’s Melamen Center.
The film contains footage of his mother Mary Thomas, a revered Elder widely recognized for her work bridging gaps between cultures, supporting youth and protecting the environment. She died in 2007, the same year the documentary was completed.
Citing government documents and policies of Canada’s first Prime Minster John A. Macdonald, Fallen Feather describes how residential schools were set up for one purpose – to further the government policy of taking over the land.
By destroying First Nations families, where children were central, any resistance would be weakened. Parents whose children were held captive by the government would be unlikely to provoke those captors. The “Indian problem,” as it was called, would disappear.
Mary Thomas was one of several people featured in the film, including former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine; Kwakiutl Chief Bob Joseph Sr.; Secwepmec Nation members Margaret August-Sjodin, Richard and John Jules, Ernie Philip and Dan Saul; Shawn Tupper; lawyer Christopher Devlin and judge Ted Hughes.
In the film, Mary toured the Kamloops institution with film host and co-producer Jannica Hoskins, providing memories of her years there. Randy Bezeau also produced and directed the film. Mary started attending with her older sisters when she was just six.
“Just out of the blue they picked us up and took us to residential school in Kamloops,” she said. “I can remember my mother would get us all dressed up and ready to go back to school. What a horrible day, we’d be all cryin’, ‘we don’t want to go back, we don’t want to go back,’ all the way to the church. And here comes a cattle truck, cow poop and all; they just put homemade benches on the sides… They wouldn’t even bother to scrub the floors. The truck would pull in, all the kids would get packed in there, it was rough going – and that was to be our joy ride all the way to Kamloops.”
Mary said she doesn’t blame the churches, she puts responsibility on the federal government.
”I put the onus on the government, they’re the ones I feel were ahead of all this turmoil we were subjected to. It was the government that used the churches.”
The film documents the ongoing abuse of the children – how they slept in large overcrowded dormitories, how they were physically abused through beatings, hunger and sexual assaults, and how they were further psychologically abused through separation from family and Christian indoctrination, while Indigenous spirituality and culture were ridiculed and demeaned.
Mary spoke about crying for her grandma when she came to the school.
“It was so lonely. And not having her help me to fall asleep, it was really hard on a child growing up. Oftentimes, with my grandma, if I had hurt myself during the day, and it was still hurting, I would tell her, ‘Grandma, I fell and hurt my leg or my arm.’ She would rub it and rub it and rub it, and just rubbing it felt so good it would help ease the pain. But you didn’t get that here…
“You had to learn to be hard inside and when you grow up with that hard feeling inside, you have no feelings for anybody, not even for yourself. It’s tough, it’s really hard.”
In a recent interview, Jannica Hoskins said making the film took four years and was very much a labour of love for her. It was the beginning of a journey of being mentored by Mary Thomas, understanding kinship and plant medicines, and having her experience become a transfer of knowledge.
“She used to always say things that instilled responsibility. ‘This is not just for you to know but for you to teach.’”
Hoskins lived on reserve with her, going through harvesting seasons alongside her.
“It’s unfortunate that some of the people that were in the film have passed away before seeing what it looks like today,” she said.
Speaking to Canada’s future and the environment, Hoskins said people’s relationships over time in society are key.
“Because that’s going to be the route of what we need to achieve before we can actually address our environmental issues… The less resistant we are to understanding new perspectives in terms of reconciliatory approaches, the more opportune our future can be.”
Hoskins spoke about Mary Thomas’s strength.
“Mary had a real keen sense of humour and charm; the way she would talk about conditions that were obviously traumatic and demanded a huge effort on the human spirit to be able to live through.”
One example from the film is when Mary speaks about the hunger the children endured, which she said was worse than the strappings she received. However, the principal and teachers ate well. Trays of roast beef and potatoes would fill their table.
“Then comes the cake,” said Mary. “I’d say to myself, I’ll get a chunk of that cake, don’t you worry. Before they took it back in the kitchen, you’d make sure you walked a little bit too close to the table.”
With that she laughs and makes the motion of taking a swipe of cake with her finger.
Hoskins spoke again about the importance of the transfer of knowledge and Mary Thomas.
“I think when you listen to someone, you remember what they say when you repeat it. That’s the greatest impact that she had on me. I’m not a rare case. I think she had that impact on many people. She probably inadvertently mentored many people with varying proximities.”
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