By Colin Graf
AAMJIWNAANG FIRST NATION – Reconciliation is something that needs to take place not only between racial communities in Canada, but also within First Nations families. That’s the message from the children of the last generation of residential-school survivors in a new documentary film “Aftershock” from southwestern Ontario. The documentary features interviews with six First Nations adults, who explain how learning about their parents’ disturbed childhoods has helped them fight the toxic effects of seven generations of residential schooling and build a positive future for their own children.
During eight months of production, filmmaker Dwayne Cloes of Sarnia was struck by the bravery his participants have shown in coming forward to make the often uncomfortable stories known. Throughout his work on the project, Cloes was struck by how their generation has found ways to forgive their parents for imperfect childhoods. “They may have harboured anger, as any young person would, but things can change after they know the circumstances” (of their parents’ younger years), he says. “They’ve learned to be understanding about why their parents never hugged them,” he explained in a post-screening interview with Anishinabek News.
For many that understanding came later in life, as parents were often reluctant to speak about their residential schools experience to their children. Jay Jones, from Walpole Island First Nation, remembers his surprise at finding out as a grown man that his father had been a decorated soldier, a prisoner-of-war and had also suffered in childhood at a residential school. In the film his sister Susan remembers the strict discipline their father meted out to them after all these experiences, and being “scared to death” of “the paddle.”
She recounts the story of how one of the teenaged Jones children talked back to their mother, Susie Jones, also a res-school survivor featured in Cloes’ previous documentary “We are Still Here”. That film features first-person accounts of life in residential schools from the last generation of survivors from southern Ontario. The teenager mouthed back to the mother, saying the paddling didn’t hurt.
Their mother’s reply? “It sure made me feel good.”
As “Aftershock” unfolds, stories such as this reveal today’s middle-aged adults learning to see their parents’ own pain enacted in their parenting. Spending their childhoods in institutions where the strap could be used on 4 or 5 year-olds, “they had no knowledge or example to base anything on,” in raising their children, says Susan Jones in the film. “My Mom never hugged us, but she sacrificed so much,” for her children, she adds, recognizing love in her mother’s actions.
Most of the participants in the new movie are children of those in the earlier work.
Participating in making the movie has helped some of the participants grow and come to terms with their life stories. “I’ve started speaking out more,” said interviewee Bill Robertson, recounting an incident at work involving a co-worker “going on” during one lunchtime about First Nations people being over-privileged. “I told him, until you go through all of this (multi-generational trauma) I don’t want to hear that stuff out of your mouth in this lunchroom,” Robertson told the audience members. The man left the room and later apologized to him.
After viewing “Aftershock” for the first time, Susan Jones, a board member of the Shingwauk Education Trust at Algoma University said the experience was “eye-opening, realizing that, yes, this generation needs help” to understand what their parents went through, “compared to when we were children and didn’t” (understand). She feels “Aftershock” will be a valuable tool to help other First Nations people gain the same sort of understanding that she’s discovered.
As children, “you just take it as it comes”, explained her brother Jay, but as you age, “you can see the pattern” produced by “generations of no nurturing” re-emerging, and must make a conscious effort to fight it.
“There’s always hope,” says Susan. “It takes people talking more, working together more, and reacting in a positive, going-forward motion,” she offers.
The knowledge of their parents’ lives the participants have shown in his film gives Dwayne Cloes hope too. Their knowledge has led to a deeper understanding for them, and he hopes the film itself will help spread that insight to a wider audience, not only of First Nations, but also to others in Canada. “Aftershock” will have its official premier in Sarnia this coming April.
Deliberately leaving out any graphic details of childhood trauma, he hopes “Aftershock” will be shown in upper-grade elementary and high schools. Cloes feels the mission for his work is best explained in an echo of the now-familiar comment of Senator and Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that “it’s education that got us into this mess, and it’s education that will get us out of it.”