Why every Canadian should be haunted by Rhymes for Young Ghouls

I have been meaning to write this for weeks now, but I needed the time to distance myself from my reaction to seeing Jeff Barnaby’s film, “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” . I’m not sure how successful I’ve been, given that I couldn’t even write this piece in one sitting and needed to come back to it several times. The film was held over in Montreal for an extra week, so I excitedly organised some friends to go see it before we lost the chance to experience this film in the theatre.

To be honest, I wish I had researched the film a bit more. All I knew of it before I bought the tickets was that people whose opinions I respect were raving about it, and Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs looked completely badass in all the post-apocaplyptic seeming movie-posters. I do not think I would have gone to see this film if I had dug a little deeper into the plotline; it hurt too much. It still hurts too much. Still, I regret nothing.

Rhymes-for-Young-Ghous-Movie-Poster-Jeff-Barnaby I think that this film is potentially transformational. Most Indigenous people are at least somewhat aware of the subject matter, but I’ve taught enough native youth to know that isn’t necessarily the case, and much of this will be completely new to most non-Indigenous Canadians. I strongly believe that every adult living in Canada should watch this film (though there are more trigger warnings for this film than I can count, so please take care). The format, the beautiful cinematography, the amazing script and a stellar cast makes this part of our collective history accessible in a way that no Royal Commission or official report can hope to match. More importantly it utterly rips apart the notion that by beginning to gather an account of the Residential School system we are in any way done the last bit of truth telling we need to undergo in this country.

This film (available for purchase at Prospector Films) is not a documentary by any means. It is primarily a work of fiction set in a social and political context that many Canadians are completely unaware of, despite that context having existed, and continuing to exist right here, in Canada. I am not particularly fond of the revenge fantasy genre, but I think this film works in spite of that aspect.

From the first scene to the very last, this film is absolutely unrelenting in its brutality. Each scene was like a blow to the body, even the more light-hearted exchanges which nonetheless all managed to evoke the horror of experiences the characters were deflecting with humour. For me, the familiarity of the events: alcoholism leading to accidental death, suicide, incarceration, poverty, the vulnerability of having only illegal means to keep oneself and one’s family safe, the brooding presence of the Residential School; all of it evoked a litany of statistics that are all too real in too many Indigenous communities. For me, the most disturbing aspect of this film is that even though it is a work of fiction, and some facts were blended for dramatic reasons, every single event portrayed has happened, and is happening in our communities. Rather than being a work of extreme exaggeration, I think this film had time only to scratch the surface of the horrific humans rights abuses it was attempting to portray. And this should be what haunts all Canadians.

rhymesforyoungghouls_01In this film, the Residential School is merely a terrible side concern. We don’t even learn the names of the priests and nuns involved. The real villain is the Indian Agent, and though not explicitly mentioned, the Conservative and Liberal governments that gave these bureaucrats such wide-sweeping powers for so many generations.

Here we are given a glimpse into social dysfunction that is directly linked to the way in which every aspect of life on reserve is in some way governed by the Indian Act. The connection between legislation and daily life is thrown into stark relief, and though things have changed somewhat since then, this film may provide viewers with their first understanding of the tangible cause and effect of ongoing colonialism.

The fact that this film was set in the 70s, when my parents were young adults on their way to starting our family, impacted me in a way I could have never expected. It was too close for comfort. I was born in that decade. This is far from being ancient history. The truth is, so much of what has happened and continues to happen is not ancient history, and this is a truth that most Canadians still cannot see. I felt it in a way that was very hard to process, and continues to upset me in ways I still cannot articulate. I still feel raw.


Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs as 15 year old Aila.

The absolute power of the Indian Agent highlighted in this film at first seems implausible. That is, until you learn about the history of the Indian Act. This journey of discovery is the next step this country needs to take. The power of the Indian Agent to withhold rations and blankets, resulting in the deaths of Indigenous people in the late 1800s, was not lessened, but merely changed form with every Indian Act amendment, well into the late 20th century. Was there ever an Indian Agent this corrupt, this vile, this abusive? Perhaps not in exactly the same way as portrayed in this film, but based on the stories that exist in Indigenous communities, this character is not wholly unbelievable. The system created to give power to Indian Agents created the perfect opportunity for abuse of that power.

I do not want to spoil the movie for anyone. It is hard for me to even articulate why I think it is so important that this film be watched widely, and more than once, but I will try.

I remember when the abuses of Residential Schools were something very few people talked about. I remember those stories beginning to trickle out, until they became a painful flood that would burst forth unexpectedly at meetings, at community gatherings until it became somewhat common for at least one survivor to identify themselves at events, even if they did not share their stories. It took a long time for the wider Canadian society to hear those stories and to believe them. Some even suggested that these stories be taken with a grain of salt because they were too horrific to believe. A National Benchmark Survey in 2008 indicated that only half of Canadians had ever read or seen something about Residential schools compared to 80% of Indigenous peoples. I hope that number has improved with the national media attention that has been given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it will take decades until this information becomes universal knowledge in Canada.


You can purchase this film for $20CAN, available in both English and French.

I think we are still in the era of “it’s just conspiracy theory” when it comes to belief in mass graves at these Residential Schools, as accounts are still mostly anecdotal and forensic investigations have not yet backed up the stories. I do expect that with time, this information will come out just as the “it’s just conspiracy theory” information has been coming out about the extent of the physical and sexual abuse in Residential Schools. We will eventually know the truth here as well.

I also remember when people talking about murdered and missing Indigenous women were scoffed at. They were “exaggerating” with accounts of up to 600. Those numbers are no longer so easily dismissed. Even the RCMP have confirmed at least 1,181 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered between 1980-2012.

Indigenous peoples have been trying for generations to tell Canadians of the horrific things that have happened and continue to happen. There are so many stories that have still not entered the national consciousness, even when scholarship and proof exists. This is why Rhymes for Young Ghouls is so very, very powerful. Indigenous artists are bringing forward these stories of Canada’s history in a way that has to potential to reach the average Canadian when academic works and complex investigations might not. This particular story will have viewers asking questions about what Indian Agents were trying to accomplish and why they had the power they did. These are questions that need to be asked, and answered for all of us living on these lands.

We need more movies like this, no matter how painful they are. We need to face what has happened in this country, and what continues to happen in this country. The material must be presented in a way that is accessible, without losing its transformative potential. Honestly, who can do this better than Indigenous artists, through various forms of media?

Rhymes for Young Ghouls is not just a film. It is a glimpse into something none of us really want to see but must face. If you didn’t get the chance to see it in the theatre, please consider purchasing it (also on iTunes), or borrowing it from a local library. It is my hope that this film will spark conversations, that there will be screenings and discussions. Indigenous film-making is certainly on the rise, and it is my hope that this new form of a very old way of telling stories will reach a wide audience and have us looking for truths that have been ignored for far too long.

And just maybe, after we dry our eyes, we can sit down and talk about it.


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17 Responses to Why every Canadian should be haunted by Rhymes for Young Ghouls

  1. Ruth Pickering says:

    Thank you for sharing this film with us (settlers). I have been deeply concerned, and have been informing myself for many years about the unspeakable effects of colonization, then and now, on First Nations peoples. I have just bought the film. I will view it and share with others who feel shame at coming from settler stock. Many of us care, but most of us still know too little. It sounds like this film will contribute to our knowing a bit more than we now do. With gratitude for offering this,
    ruth pickering

  2. Perry Bulwer says:

    I still have vivid memories of the first time I learned of Residential School atrocities. It was in my first year history course in 1992/93 at what is now called Vancouver Island University. At the time, they had the beginnings of an Indigenous studies program that has now grown into a degree program. A year before I started classes, my history teacher had a Residential School survivor talk to his class about her experiences. With her permission, her talk was recorded on cassette tape, and he played it for our class. I was dumbfounded. Stunned at what I heard and what I was learning through books such as “An Iron Hand Upon the People” about the prohibition of the potlach. I grew up across the river less than a mile away from one of the more notorious schools, in Port Alberni, where nutrition experiments were conducted on children. It broke my heart, and still does, to think of children my own age being so terribly abused, so close to where I was living in a relatively idyllic environment.

    I attended the TRC hearings on the site of that former school, which was a very powerful event, but there were only about 10 or so non-Indigenous people in attendance on both days I attended. You are so right, this is not just history, there are current and ongoing consequences still playing out. I truly hope more Indigenous artists will take up your call and shine more light on this dark chapter of our history.

    Regarding your comment on “..the era of “it’s just conspiracy theory” when it comes to belief in mass graves at these Residential Schools…”, I instantly thought of the recent report from Ireland of the discovery of nearly 800 bodies of young children in an old septic tank of a church-run home for single mothers and children. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/04/children-galway-mass-graves-ireland-catholic-church

    There is now an investigation to search for more mass graves of children who died in institutional care in Ireland. So, the allegations of mass graves on the properties of church-run Indian Residential Schools is not so hard to believe. The same mentality and cruelty operated those ‘homes’ and ‘schools’.

    • Absolutely. While Residential Schools were the most wide-spread institutions in Canada where children were put into institutional care, they are not the only examples. Black children died in institutional care and were buried without being spoken of again, and there were also homes for unwed mothers in this country. Some of those children were adopted without the consent of their mothers, or died while in care. In other cases, mothers who had stillborn babies were not allowed any time with their child who had passed, and the bodies were whisked away to be buried in unmarked graves. Slowly, people have been coming forward and asking questions, and slowly these things are becoming known. I do not believe that anyone impacted by any of these situations can fully heal until the whole truth is acknowledged in each and every case.

  3. Thank you for bringing this forward. I hadn’t heard of this movie, and I will want to see it. I don’t know when I will have the courage though, to see the events played out because just from your description alone, my heart is beating heavily and I feel like crying. I feel a grandfather’s pain in these words. He would tell us some of his stories, but not all. I will remember some things of my own too although not from a school. These histories do need the light to heal. Thank you, for adding to the light.

  4. parentassets says:

    Wow, Thanks for your continued efforts to teach us – inform us, empower us with information- and critical analysis of the ” haunting” past of this country- I am hopeful.. we will move in the direction when we all- settlers- immigrants will come to an intersection when we will say, ” we have gained the respect of the First people of this beautiful country”.. that day WILL come- as the public becomes not just aware of what happened and why it happened- but what NEEDS TO happen so we ca have a peaceful future- The noise whether it is IDLE NO MORE or campaigns -= and articles like this..we will continue to learn..

    again ..thanks

  5. nebulaflash says:

    Thank you for this deeply disturbing article. We of European descent who thought we were so superior really must be how barbaric we have been. That is not enough though. We must also work towards a more compassionate and caring world.

    • History has shown Europeans to utter empty words, promises and treaties. Canada and America (North and South) will never recover from the European invasion.

      • Perry Bulwer says:

        I agree the future looks very grim, but it is in Indigenous movements that I see the only glimmers of hope. Chris Hedges points to that in a recent article:

        “We All Must Become Zapatistas”


        “The Zapatistas form the most important resistance movement of the last two decades. They are a visible counterweight to the despoiling and rape of the planet and the subjugation of the poor by global capitalism. And they have repeatedly reinvented themselves—as Marcos has now done—to survive. The Zapatistas gave global resistance movements a new language, drawn in part from the indigenous communal Mayan culture, and a new paradigm for action. They understood that corporate capitalism had launched a war against us. They showed us how to fight back. The Zapatistas began by using violence, but they soon abandoned it for the slow, laborious work of building 32 autonomous, self-governing municipalities. Local representatives from Juntas de Buen Gobierno, or Councils of Good Government, which is not recognized by the Mexican government, preside over these independent Zapatista communities. The councils oversee community programs that distribute food, set up clinics and schools and collect taxes. Resources are for those who live in the communities, not for the corporations that come to exploit them. And in this the Zapatistas allow us to see the future, at least a future where we have a chance of surviving.”

        • Your point and comment are well received. My angst is always drawn when Europeans mention they are aware of the magnitude of their misdeeds and make shallow statements about atoning or changing their ways.

          Fact is, you cannot believe anything they say. Both America and Canada are built on the backs of Natives by European invaders. They show no signs of changing or being able to too. For all their misdeeds, they offer their Bible and apologies. Both of which are empty.

  6. ” Here we are given a glimpse into social dysfunction that is directly linked to the way in which every aspect of life on reserve is in some way governed by the Indian Act.”

    Great expose of a diabolical people who’s history is primarily unchanged since the beginning of colonization.

    The parallels of what happened here are almost mirrors of the devices and methods employed by the same people in colonizing the U.S.

    • Frederick Peitzsche says:

      “It was a beautiful dream, the nations hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead.” –Black Elk Oglala Sioux.- Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
      Soldiers in the U S butchered women and children, they even cut off the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle horns on their saddles.
      Andre , if you can get a copy of this book , you will find that it is a horrible look at the cruelty of those ‘brave pioneers’ who ‘settled’ the West.

  7. Shark Attttack says:

    You literally went into my brain and articulated all I wanted to say. This film is one of the most important film for a Canadian to see. I just bought 3 copies. FYI – Amazon seemed the cheapest route (didn’t check iTunes).

  8. tabissett says:

    My late friend (Wilfred Brass) from Key Reserve said: “You young people, you have that daylight in your minds. Us? They put curtains around our minds, They tried to make us their slaves…keep us in the dark. But, you young people? You have that daylight in your minds. We’re gonna be okay.”

    I love that you’ve made this movie; thank you. It must have been heart-breaking to re-tell the stories so I commend your strength and courage. You have that ‘daylight in your minds” and I believe him, we are gonna be okay. Sending love, Trinity from Vancouver, BC (Nisgaa//English mix up)

  9. Cheryl Thomson says:

    Look, all Canadian screenings of this film need to hand out forms to be signed, which should then be forwarded to whoever at the time is the Head of Programming at the CBC. Instead of saying, ‘everyone should see this’ or buy it, to show it to somebody or other, and then stick it on the shelf at home… We need to hold the CBC to the fire, because it is because of the apathy in Toronto that absolutely nothing of real importance to ‘Canadians’ gets broadcast to the country at large. This is not acceptable! Let the CBC have it!

  10. Dear âpihtawikosisân, I believe the film will be showing at Présence autochtone /First Peoples’ Festival, at the beginning of August. I hope that you will be able to attend the Festival.

    http://www.presenceautochtone.ca The site is still under construction

    The Festival had been looking forward to the presence of Rigoberta Menchú Tum as guest of honour, but unfortunately for the festival, and fortunately for the Indigenous Maya people of Guatemala, Ms Menchú Tum will be unable to attend as she is a key witness in a trial of genocidal high-ranking military officers in the massacre at the Spanish Embassy, which was being occupied by Indigenous protestors trying to call the world’s attention to the genocidal attacks on Maya villages in that Central American country.

    It is an important episode in discovering the truth about this dispossession throughout the Americas (and elsewhere – similar “residential schools” were found in Australia and New Zealand) which is still ongoing in many ways and places.

    That said, have a lovely summer!

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