Circle of Eagles film celebrates Indigenous comebacks while showing how traditional ways promote healing

Directed by Merv Thomas, the documentary offers deep insights into why a disproportionate number of First Nations people wind up in prison in Canada

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      In the documentary Circle of Eagles, Ron Laprise speaks bluntly about the impact of Indian residential school on his life.

      He reveals that as a result of his horrific experiences, he came to see everyone as a predator. His anger at the world led directly to a long list of criminal convictions.

      Laprise, an articulate Vancouver artist, acknowledges in the film that he was locked up for years in some of the toughest jails in Canada. But then he offers a startling disclosure.

      “I still have not found one institution that is comparable to what I have experienced in residential school,” Laprise declares. “In residential school, it was very personal.”

      Laprise’s reflections on his pain, suffering, and ultimate path to redemption and service to the community is one of many inspiring stores in the film, which was directed by Circle of Eagles Lodge Society CEO Merv Thomas.

      Over the phone, Thomas tells the Straight that the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools last year was tough on the men who appear in the film. They had already endured so much trauma and hurt. Like Laprise, several felt a great deal of anger toward society as young men.

      “A lot of them ended up in Canada’s prisons,” Thomas says. “So there’s a direct correlation between what happened to them, historically.

      “That’s what I really wanted to point out,” he continues. “Yes, they’ve made some horrific choices in terms of what they’ve done. But you can’t raise children in the way that they were raised and expect a great outcome.”

      Merv Thomas is the CEO of Circle of Eagles Lodge Society and director of Circle of Eagles.

      The Vancouver-based Circle of Eagles Lodge Society operates healing lodges for Indigenous male and female ex-inmates as well as a sweat lodge in the inner city.

      In addition, the society runs the Circle of Eagles Trading Post retail and online store and a pre-employment program, offers free food to homeless Indigenous people, and takes former inmates on the Tsetsusem healing journey at Camp Potlatch overlooking Howe Sound.

      The film shows how these ex-inmates have transformed their outlook on the world and self-esteem while gaining empathy for others by reconnecting to the land, water, and their Indigenous traditions.

      Laprise is one of several Indigenous Circle of Eagles Lodge “brothers” and “elders” in the film who are eager to help others heal. Others include Anthony Milton, Rob Bain, Terrance Machiskinic, Joe Fossella, Tony Niles, Michael Chief, Giuseppe Centis, and Stephan McKay.

      “You get very close to them and you try to steer them in the right way,” Thomas says. “One of the main foundation of Circle of Eagles is we treat the brothers with respect. All of us treat each other with respect and we expect that throughout all our organization from the board, the staff, and those that we serve.”

      Marge White founded the Circle of Eagles Lodge Society in 1970 to offer a lifeline to Indigenous ex-inmates.

      At one point in the documentary, Laprise beseeches anyone who’s watching to never give up, no matter how awful their situation might be.

      Thomas is keen to reinforce this idea.

      “Our main message is there’s hope,” the director says. “You never give up hope no matter what you’re going through.”

      Thomas says that the society initially planned to launch Circle of Eagles to coincide with the organization’s 50th anniversary, in May of 2020. But the pandemic delayed the release.

      This offered more time for the team to craft a more polished film, which was filmed and edited by Darko Sikman and features an original soundtrack to go with gorgeous imagery. It's already won awards on the film festival circuit.

      The film pays homage to the society’s founder and long-time executive director, Marge White, whose vision set the stage for all that followed. It began with a house at Clark Drive and East 12th Avenue, which was opened to three Indigenous men who had been released into the community.

      “We, as Indigenous people, have experienced a lot of stigma and discrimination,” Thomas says. “The system is still very racist and very stigmatizing. It’s very difficult for Indigenous people when they get in the system to get out.”

      As an example, he cites Section 84 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.

      It states that if inmates express an interest in being released into an Indigenous community, Corrections Canada shall give an Indigenous governing body adequate notice of an upcoming parole review or statutory-release date. It also states that these Indigenous governing bodies should receive an opportunity to propose a plan for the inmates release and integration into the community.

      In reality, Thomas, says, there aren’t sufficient services in many Indigenous communities to do this. As a result, he points out that many Indigenous ex-inmates can’t visit their home communities, despite the society’s long-standing advocacy for this.

      “It seems like sometimes you’re pushing that big old boulder up the hill,” Thomas says.

      Video: Watch the trailer for Circle of Eagles.

      At the same time, he credited Corrections Canada and the federal government for taking positive steps in recent years in acknowledging the importance of Indigenous traditions in the healing process.

      The comments of every former federal inmate in the film was vetted by Corrections Canada, Thomas notes.

      Others who appear in the film include the vice president of the society’s board, Rick Lavallee, a veteran Vancouver police officer of Cree Métis heritage; the society’s director of operations, Barb Ellis; and parole officer Jessica Baird.

      According to Thomas, Lavallee hopes that the film will eventually be seen by members of all police departments.

      “He wants to turn this into an educational forum,” Thomas says.

      The Circle of Eagles Lodge Society will screen Circle of Eagles on Friday (May 27) as part of its 50th-anniversary celebration from 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday (May 27) at the York Theatre. Circle of Eagles will also be available online at that time. For more information, visit the society's website.