The acknowledgement of wrongs done to the Indigenous peoples of Canada does not, and should not, be confined to one day a year. Though the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, which has been observed since 2018, is an important step forward, there is so much more to do. So many more important and uncomfortable conversations to have, so many more experiences to learn from, and so much additional trauma to come to terms with.
For Love, a new documentary from director Matt Smiley and producer and writer Mary Teegee of Carrier Sekani Family Services, examines the link between the legacy of residential schools and the 29,000 Indigenous youths currently a part of Canada’s child welfare system. That equals 52% of children in the system, despite Indigenous children representing only 7.7% of Canada’s population. Approximately 150,000 children attended our country’s residential schools, becoming a part of a system Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has referred to as ‘cultural genocide.’
It may seem as if the connection between the federal welfare system and residential schools is an obvious one–with generations defined and traumatized by both–but so far, very little is being done to heal the connective tissue or provide the necessary support to those who need them. Perhaps the Canadian government has turned a blind eye for so long, it doesn’t know how to do what needs to be done or, more to the point, doesn’t care to try.
The film is narrated by Canadian music legend Shania Twain, which may seem an odd pairing unless you’re aware of her life-long advocacy for children in poverty and her Indigenous connections through her step-father. As narrator, she provides us with the stark truths of hundreds of years of systemic abuse: from the passing of the oppressive and assimilative Indian Act in 1876, to the official opening of residential schools in the 1880s, to the “Sixties Scoop” where tens of thousands of Indigenous children were removed from their families and placed within the federal child welfare system, often without parental consent.
It follows that there is no shortage of survivor stories for her to share, but that doesn’t make any of them any less heart-rending or appalling.
There’s Roy Nooski from the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation–a survivor of abuse at the Lejac Residential School–who speaks of his alcoholism, suicidal ideations and of his children being taken into care because of his struggles to cope. There’s Madlene Sark of the Lennox Island First Nation, who was taken from her mother and placed in the child welfare system at a young age. This event has made her understandably fearful of her own children being taken from her, exacerbated by her lack of confidence and power to speak up on behalf of her children or her family as a whole.
Then there’s the story of the Attawapiskat First Nation. Poverty, housing shortages, poisoned water, and the ever-present spectre of drug and alcohol usage–rampant as a means to numb the pain of experienced trauma–are the major issues facing a community struggling to survive. Attawapiskat made headlines in 2016 when 11 young members of the community attempted suicide in one night, which was just the latest in an 8-month-long crisis that saw over 150 people attempt to take their lives. National news media descended and suddenly the rest of Canada (briefly) cared about the conditions and circumstances of a community that seemed to serve as a microcosm of First Nations from across the country.
For Love emphasizes that this crisis, like many others, will be dealt with at a surface level before the Canadian people, supports, and media turn away and move on to the next headline. The story will not linger long enough for us to reckon and deal with the underlying causes properly and effectively. As the camera zooms in on the faces of Attwaspiskat’s young men and women it is clear that they feel hopeless, forgotten and ignored. But these are not isolated incidents nor are the causes of their apathy difficult to parse. Smiley’s film does an excellent job of ensuring the threads are there for the audience to weave together. What the Canadian government has officially called a ‘State of Emergency’ is the result of generations of systemic abuses and government inaction but now that we have the knowledge and the resources, how can we simply turn away? It’s a question that sits at the very heart of the film. Now that we know the why, the how, and the generations of consequences, why isn’t more being done?
Though For Love leaves audiences to wrestle within themselves for an answer, the film is not without hope. First Nations communities across the country tired of their pleas going unanswered are doing what they can to take back control over their children and their futures. As Chief Darlene Bernard of the Lennox Island First Nation passionately explains, communities are taking ownership of their problems and are working on prevention within the family. They’re working to form solutions that will allow the youngest generation to grow up among their families and their culture, to reclaim their resources and foster a sense of belonging and peace.
In Attawaspiskat, there is the hopeful example of Indigenous midwifery – a practice returning to the community after being eradicated in the past. The doc profiles Christine Roy, of the Neepeeshowan Midwives, who outlines the importance of centring Indigenous women in their own community’s care, in their own bodily decisions, and in consent. All things that have been ripped from them for hundreds of years. For Love posits that restoring that power of ownership and agency is a first and important step within the community–one that opens the door to further healing and restoration of essential lost connections.
As the film first tells us, this is a humanitarian crisis of an unimaginable magnitude and For Love demonstrates just how many of us are willing to look away even in the face of that fact. Best summed up by Niki Ashton, the Member of Parliament for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski in Manitoba, the film forces us to acknowledge an essential truth: “It’s not enough to just move ahead and support the healing from the residential schools. We need to reckon with what’s happening now and keep families together, keep children with their families and communities now.”