VANCOUVER—Despite abuses at the hands of priests and nuns in residential schools, many First Nations people are finding hope and healing in their Catholic faith.

“I know that Jesus is with me every day, wherever I go. Even right now, I feel him. I feel his blessings,” said Dene woman Nora Wedzin as she held back tears before a large crowd at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts Dec. 6.

Wedzin, from Behchoko, N.W.T., is one of several residential school survivors featured in the new documentary In the Spirit of Reconciliation by cinematographer-priest Father Larry Lynn. She arrived to Vancouver to watch the world premiere with more than 300 people that day.

“I was taken advantage of in residential school. I didn’t know what was happening and I was ashamed of myself,” said Wedzin, sharing her story on a six-person panel after the documentary.

Wedzin had been sexually abused as a child and a teen. When she was 16 years old, her father died and her mother abandoned all 17 of their children. To numb the pain, Wedzin first turned to alcohol.

“Today, in Jesus’ name, I forgive. I want to be healed,” she said. Now she finds strength in going to Sunday Mass, where the church in her neighbourhood is packed, and reading the Bible in her own language.

“Spirituality and Jesus have always been with us through time immemorial. He has always existed in our aboriginal life. We call our Creator Jesus and he’s always been there. If you integrate him into your language and into your culture, you’re going to have a very powerful church.”

Yvonne Rigsby-Jones of Reconciliation Canada (left) sits on a panel with residential school survivors Monique Sabourin and Nora Wedzin.

Next to her on the panel was Dene woman Monique Sabourin, also featured in the film. Sabourin grew up in Fort Providence, N.W.T. She also lost a parent at a young age, was sexually and physically abused at residential school, and struggled with addiction.

“It took 10 years of my life to realize where I was coming from and where the pain was coming from, why I was drinking,” Sabourin said in the theatre.

Though she was sexually assaulted by a priest, she actually found healing through her faith. “I saw a vision of Jesus and then I knew I had to do something with my life,” said Sabourin, who as a result quit drinking in 1992.

“I had to learn to forgive myself and love myself first, and then to ask the Creator to forgive me, and then how to forgive everybody who abused me. It’s not easy.”

It also wasn’t easy to come back to the Church; she struggled with her faith for a time and at one point began attending services at a Pentecostal church instead. She eventually returned to Catholicism.

“I learned to forgive and to love and to accept who am – I am a Dene. But as I went back to my church, I had a lot of obstacles! I had a lot of obstacles, but I just keep walking. I keep facing them,” she said. Sabourin now runs a 12-step recovery program in Fort Providence.

The film, described by Father Lynn as “unapologetically Catholic,” also features residential school survivors George Tuccaro (retired commissioner of the Northwest Territories) and Samuel Gargan (Mayor of Fort Providence) as well as Catholic Bishops Denis Croteau and Mark Hagemoen, who have served northern communities.

Nora Wedzin chats with filmmaker Father Larry Lynn after the show.

Many of them describe the pain of residential schools and the ways survivors have found hope and healing.

Steven Point, former lieutenant governor of B.C., attended the premiere and said he was touched by the film.

“I find it actually extraordinary that the Church is involved in this kind of expose,” he said. “Reconciliation is going to be a long road back. We can’t change what’s happened in the past, but we can certainly acknowledge it and hold those individuals responsible for hurting our women and our young boys.”

He added that reconciliation is not just about First Nations people forgiving those who wronged them. “It’s about this country acknowledging what the hell they’ve done to First Nations. It’s about doing the best we can to put First Nations back into the position they would have been if they had not been colonized.”

Special guests also included Bishop Gary Gordon of Victoria, Bishop Emeritus David Monroe of Kamloops, Health Minister Adrian Dix, and Stolo elder Gilbert Joe and his family.