In a new documentary called In the Spirit of Reconciliation, aboriginal chiefs, small town mayors, and Catholic bishops wrestle with the dark history of residential schools and the hope of healing. The hour-long movie, coming out Dec. 6, was filmed over a series of visits to northern Canada and reveals testimonies never before shared on film.
The B.C. Catholic sat down with director Father Larry Lynn to find out why a Catholic priest set out to make a film about reconciliation.
B.C. Catholic: Where did the idea to create In the Spirit of Reconciliation come from?
Father Larry Lynn: It started when I was in the seminary, with Bishop Mark Hagemoen’s ordination and installation to the episcopate up in the Northwest Territories in 2013. Producer Jack Ong started it. We started making a film about the bishop, but really the intention of the film was to produce something for Catholic Missions in Canada to use as a fundraising tool. That was the initial idea.
We shot and we edited and it wasn’t working. I said: “Jack, I gotta go back up. We need more winter scenes and I gotta go back up while it’s winter and shoot something and try to make this work.”
We were getting ready to do that when, just about maybe a week before we went, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out with their 94 calls to action. Bishop Mark looked at it and said: “Let’s be bold. Let’s deal with this issue.”
I was like: “Wow! Now we’re talking about making a film! Yes!” So, I hired a good cinematographer, who happens to be my son, Dan, and he came from Los Angeles to do it.
BCC: In the years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many different stories are coming out about aboriginal people, the Church, the government, and how they should deal with past abuses. What’s the angle in your film?
FLL: It just so happens the people who got involved had these incredible stories. The key character in the film is a woman named Monique Sabourin.
She was helping me, guiding me through Fort Providence. She was not there to be interviewed, she was a woman who was helping the local priest, who was absent at the time because he was in another town. She was taking us around town and introducing us to people and being a translator, especially for the elders.
On the last day, I said: “Monique, maybe I could interview you? We’re leaving tomorrow morning, at 9 o'clock; do you mind if we come over before we leave?” She said: “I don’t know … Okay, come tomorrow morning.”
We went in and set up. I said, “I want you to tell me your name, where we are, and who you are, and then I’ll ask you some questions.” We had two cameras rolling. She just started. I asked her nothing. She just told me her story as if it was written out: paradise lost, paradise regained, and the struggles involved. When she finished, I leaned over and said: “Dan, we have our movie!” I could just watch that: 45 minutes of her talking.
BCC: What was so compelling about Monique’s story?
FLL: She told such an honest story that came from her childhood. She described her life with her parents, life on the land, and how it was and how that was taken away and what happened to her in the school.
But that’s not the story. The story is what happened to her after residential school. How she got totally lost, in mostly alcohol, and how she found herself. How she found God again. How she could actually come back to the Church after what she perceives as the Church taking away from her. That’s why she is so important as a storyteller.
BCC: Her story is about losing her identity and finding herself again. Did the other residential school survivors you interviewed have similar stories?
FLL: Yes, they did. She’s the anchor for the film, and all the other stories are told around her story. There was a mayor, there are a couple chiefs. Another guy, at the time we filmed, was a commissioner of the Northwest Territories. He had a great take on things. He was beautiful. He’s since retired. There are a couple of other stories that are interesting.
BCC: Forgiveness is a major part of your film. Were all of your interviewees able to find forgiveness?
FLL: Yes, all of them have in some way found their peace. But perhaps, in a lot of ways, a lot of them are still struggling. It’s not a struggle that is over and done. It’s an ongoing process. Monique herself is doing a workshop. She wants to bring people from Fort Providence to do a workshop for alcoholics. Her theme is: “Why is it that you think you cannot change?” I love that.
I received so much from these people. I want to give back to help them heal. It doesn’t happen just by talking about it, sitting around, and blaming.
BCC: Did anything surprise you while you were filming?
FLL: Yes. What surprised me was the candidness of the people I met and interviewed. I was taken with them because they were so honest and accepted me. I hope it will pull people together and give people a chance to reflect on this whole issue.
BCC: In the Spirit of Reconciliation will be launched at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts Dec. 6. What message do you hope to convey to the people who come out to see it?
FLL: In the first words of the film, Monique says: how do you forgive? The film is an exploration of that premise. How do you forgive? It’s really difficult. It takes work, it takes commitment. Reconciliation can only come through finding out how to forgive. You can’t carry on in your life if you are holding hatred and animosity toward others in your heart. You can’t really move on. You’re hurting yourself. That’s the gist of the film, I think.
I’ve seen other films about residential schools. It’s usually a very dark thing, because the story is dark. This film isn’t about any of that. This film says: Here we are. How do we forgive? Who needs forgiveness? That’s a question that’s asked in the film. Who needs healing? Don’t we all need healing? How do we work together to get that healing?
This film doesn’t deny what happened. It’s not about denial or who did what. It’s not a defence of residential schools. It’s a piece on its own.
What is intended is to inform Catholics about the issues in a way that we haven’t really seen before. The other part is to inform First Nations people about what the Catholic Church is doing to try to find healing. Both sides can get something out of it, I believe.
The film will be launched at the SFU Goldcorp Centre Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. For more information visit www.reconciliation.film.