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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.