Images of Isolation

Last week I watched the film “Muffins for Granny” with my EPSY 217 class at the University of Regina. It is a powerful documentary that combines powerful images, photographs, and home videos with the stories of seven elders who were survivors of the Residential School system. These stories are an important part of our national history, that is often forgotten, as it is a difficult past to admit and face.

Imagery is an important element of this film, as it helps to connect the auditory of the stories to real life. In the film there are many shots in nature, which emphasize the connection of humanity to the natural world, and how humans often reflect the world around them. Some of the natural images depicted in the film include a waterfall, a lone moose, a lone bird, a butterfly struggling to fly and an owl. I feel that this progression of images is representative of the history of Residential Schools and the children who endured them.

Photo Credit: Matt Champlin via Compfight cc

The waterfall is a symbol of power. Water rushes down the river to the edge of the cliff and plummets off the edge creating a turbulent stream as it falls into the mists below. In the same fashion, children were swept away from their families and carried off to an unknown world where they were thrust into a foreign culture and lived a life of turmoil and abuse. Like the waterfall, the children could not go back upstream to their families, and would never be the same.

The lone moose and bird represent how lonely the children were at the schools. Children were often separated from other members of their family, and even if they were together they were often not permitted to speak to one another, and if they were, they could only do so in English. The children also felt the loneliest at night when they were isolated in their own beds rather than sleeping with their families.

Photo Credit: .Chris Lee via Compfight cc

I feel that the image of the struggling butterfly shows the difficulties that the majority of Residential School survivors have faced as a result of their attendance at these schools. They were not equipped with adequate skills, tools or knowledge to be successful in their lives, nor were they given adequate attention, love, and care in order to understand the meaning of family and become good parents. As a result, many survivors of Residential Schools turned to addiction, passed down the trauma of their experiences to their children and future generations, and have struggled to really “take flight” in their own lives.

Lastly, the image of the owl is one that I think gives hope for the future. Owls are often very solitary animals, but they are mighty and majestic creatures. They are able to survive on their own, and are equipped with the skills to fend for themselves agains enemies. The image of this creature suggests that perhaps one day the survivors can gain the strength to fly again, and that we can all make peace and reconcile with our tragic past.

In addition to the powerful images of the film, there are many powerful stories that connect to Residential Schools. One such story is told by one of the people interviewed in the film. The story is of when he was a boy, and one day he climbed a tree and encountered a bird’s nest. Inside the nest was a brand new baby bird, and he was so excited that he carefully scooped it up, climbed back down and showed the tree to his grandfather. His father was shocked, and scolded him for removing the bird and told him to return it and to never do it again. This story foreshadows a poignant connection to the history of Residential Schools, as like the baby bird, the children were scooped up and taken from their nest, their family. Like the boy, the people taking them away did not think that they were doing anything wrong at the time, but rather they thought they were helping the children, just like the boy thought he was helping the baby bird. When a baby bird is removed from a nest, the mother does not know where it is, and even when returned may not accept it back as her own because they had been touched by another being. The message of this story is that children should never be taken away from their families when they have people around them who care about them and who will love and support them in their growth and development. When children who were in the Residential School system returned to their homes they, like a baby bird, were not recognized as part of their family as they had changed.

We cannot forget our past; we must face it. In order to move towards a better future where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians can find reconciliation, we must all work together. As a future educator I know that challenges lie ahead in ensuring that our students understand our collective past, including Residential Schools. I will strive to create a culturally inclusive classroom where students feel safe to discuss tough issues. I am grateful that there are an increasing number of supports available for classroom teachers including kits, books, activities, and access to First Nations elders in the community. We were fortunate to have emerging elder, Joseph Naytowhow join our class while we watched the film, and through his guidance we were able to discuss our thoughts following it. It is my hope that some day all Canadians can speak openly and honestly to one another, and that together we can build a path of friendship.

For those interested in watching this film, or others like it, check out your local library. Another documentary about Residential Schools, “We Were Children” is also available now on Netflix.

How do you plan to introduce tough topics like Residential Schools to your classroom? What tools/resources do you use to create an atmosphere of inclusivity in your classroom?

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