Lyna Hart was just four years old when she was sent to the Guy Hill Residential School in Manitoba.
She was one of over 150,000 aboriginal students in Canada that were legally required to attend similar church-run schools across the country.
It wasn’t until decades later, when Hart was in her fifties, that she shared her story about her time there.
Like other accounts from residential school survivors, Hart’s experience included severe trauma. Her memories of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse she says she faced at the school form the basis of We Were Children, a new documentary premiering at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
According to director Tim Wolochatiuk, the filmmakers chose to depict Hart’s story, along with former residential school student Glen Anaquod's account of his experience, to illustrate the situation many students faced at the facilities.
“How do you tell a story that stands 130 years and deals with over 150,000 children,” Wolochatiuk said in a phone interview with the Straight. “So obviously we’re looking at two, and the stories are going to specific to Lyna and Glen’s experiences, but there are things in the film…that I think apply to all survivors.”
The film, which was produced by Kyle Irving for Eagle Vision Inc. and David Christensen for the National Film Board, alternates between interview clips with Hart and Anaquod and powerful dramatizations of their stories.
“The re-enactments I think serve to take the audience to places where a documentary wouldn’t be able to take you,” explained Wolochatiuk.
While the documentary depicts Hart and Anaquod’s recollections in heartbreaking detail, audiences are not shown some of the most brutal accounts of abuse. Wolochatiuk noted that some of those most traumatic stories were left to the viewer to imagine.
“I think our own imaginations are often more powerful and sometimes frightening than what I could conjure up through the lens of a camera,” he said.
Hart, now 58, said prior to sharing her experience with the filmmakers, she hadn’t told the full story of her time there to anyone else.
The sharing of that story, she told the Straight in a phone interview, is what she views as a crucial step in her healing process. She’s hoping that by talking about her experience, she’ll inspire other residential school survivors to take the same step.
She also wants Canadians to get a sense of what many First Nations students faced at the schools.
“They hear all these stories and they tell us to get over it,” she said. “But when they actually see it, it’ll have an impact on them. They will finally know what happened to us.”
Wolochatiuk acknowledged that prior to making the film, he knew very little about the schools. In June 2008, the federal government issued a formal apology to residential school survivors, calling the treatment of children in the schools a “sad chapter” in Canadian history.
“I knew somewhat about Indian Residential Schools, but it was really sort of cursory overview, and as we got into the research portion of the film I learned an awful lot,” Wolochatiuk recalled. “And I was shocked to be honest. I was…embarrassed that I didn’t know about this. Why wasn’t I taught about this in school? And I certainly wasn’t.”
Wolochatiuk indicated he’s hoping the film will be an eye-opener for those that haven’t learned much about the schools, and that it can also be used as an educational tool for Canadian students.
“Hopefully our film is a good jumping off point to get people interested and want to learn more about Indian Residential Schools and more importantly the impact that is still felt from the schools today by so many survivors, and the relatives of survivors,” he said. “The impact of these schools is still felt in so many communities today, sadly.”
We Were Children screens tonight (October 2) at 9:15 p.m. at Empire Granville 7 Cinemas Theatre #4, and on October 3 at 10:45 am at Pacific Cinémathèque.