For filmmaker Sarain Fox, the COVID-19 pandemic brought new urgency in chronicling her great-aunt’s experience with residential schools.
Fox, an Anishinaabe kwe activist and film director in Toronto, recently released Inendi — meaning “she is absent” in Ojibwe – which tells the story of her great-aunt Mary Bell’s traumatizing childhood after spending nearly a decade in the residential school system.
“We’ve been talking about reconciliation for a while but we need to talk about truth first,” she told CTV News.
Bell, now 85, was taken from her home at a young age along with her brother. They were put on a train and sent to a residential school in Spanish, Ont., between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie.
At the time, Bell didn’t know where she and her brother were being taken to, or why they were being sent there.
“They had no pity by telling us little kids that there were devils on our reserve,” she said in the documentary.
Once they arrived in Spanish, school staff separated Bell and her brother. Bell recounts being soaked in hot water and being punished “all the time.”
“I am a survivor of genocide,” she said.
Bell has since sought help because all the people in the residential school with her have since died by suicide or due to alcohol abuse. Her elders helped her heal.
“They were taking me home, that’s how I felt,” she said.
According to the federal government, about 150,000 children were sent to Canada’s 139 government-sponsored residential schools from the late 1800s until the last one closed in 1996.
While at these schools, children were subjected to neglect, as well as verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Thousands of children died while at these schools.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission characterized these schools as “cultural genocide” and issued 94 calls to action for reconciliation, including calls for improved record keeping and an official apology from the Pope.
Because much of Indigenous storytelling is oral and considering the impact COVID-19 has on older people, Fox worried that her great-aunt’s story might soon be lost, which is one of the main reasons behind the documentary.
“It was really important for me to capture them right now while she’s still here,” Fox said.
According to Indigenous Services Canada, more than 21,250 people have contracted COVID-19 in First Nations as of March 1, including 230 deaths. About six per cent of confirmed cases in those communities are among people aged 60 and over.