The severed cord: How residential schools savagely divorced generations from their culture
Written and directed by Lisa Jackson, Savage is a short film that powerfully exposes, what was for generations, the sordid reality for Aboriginal families living in Canada between 1831 and 1996.
As a token 1950s car hums along a country road, a young girl gazes out at the blurring countryside. Set against the elemental cue of a lullaby sung in the Cree language, the car passes through idyllic fields before arriving at an ominous Residential School. Just like the view from the window of a moving car, the life the girl should have lived is hurried, skipped and never realised, it is lost.
Produced for the imagineNATIVE film festival in Toronto ‘The Embargo Collective’, Savage is a response to the harrowing and irreparable damage inflicted on First Nations communities across Canada. Residential Schools, like so many atrocious White European settler initiatives, sought to educate Aboriginal children in the ways of Christianity, 'civility' and 'modern citizenship'. Physical emblems of a precious and ancient culture were stripped; billowing black hair cut short, traditional clothes swapped for sterile uniforms, and native language, religion and ceremonial practice forbidden. It was an identity not just ignored but forcefully and cruelly eradicated; authorities sought to rip out culture from its deep, ancestral, roots.
During the years of operation, an estimated 150,000 Aboriginal children passed through the doors of these institutions, some of whom never to return. Despite the façade of ‘proper education’, Residential Schools were sorely underfunded. Lessons focused primarily on practical skills, with girls primed for domestic work, and the boys, a life of hard labour. Classes would spend the remaining hours, of which there were many, carrying out unpaid work for the school and suffering unimaginable abuse and punishment. A report carried out in 1907 found that 24% of previously healthy children were dying in Residential Schools . Later it would be estimated 6,000 children lost their lives to such suffering.
The scar left on First Nations community is raw and cavernous, one carried by generations past, present and future. Forced from their homes in exile by the authorities and into a system so alien to Aboriginal culture, an enormous gulf in privilege was created. Social ills plaguing First Nations people today can be marked back to the brutal injustices born in state-funded Residential Schools, namely unemployment, domestic violence, over-representation of Aboriginal children in foster care and the high homicide rate of Indigenous women.
And then there are losses that cannot be reported with statistics or measured in percentages. Ingrained into Indigenous lives is the knowledge inherited over thousands of years, about the Earth, its spirits and celestial powers. Stories not recorded in ink, but so tightly woven into a culture that it becomes an identity, an intrinsic guide on how to navigate the world and its people. Residential Schools inflicted immeasurable damage and disruption; they severed the cord between a culture and its people.
In a time now of global volatility, from climate change to pandemics, those most innately connected to safeguarding the Earth should be where we look for guidance. Instead, too frequently, First Nations communities are forcibly removed from their homelands, identities plundered and sadly made to accept a Western-centric view of the world. And wrongs can only go so far in being righted, institutions can be closed, laws can be drafted, but it's only when we listen, hear and seek to understand that we really change the discourse.
About the filmmaker
With a background in documentary, Lisa Jackson expanded into fiction with SAVAGE, which won a Genie award for Best Short Film. When asked about the six-minute picture she says ‘I used my ‘obstructions’ to bring a fresh take on Canada’s Residential School history, which, sadly, is still unknown to many Canadians.’ Now decorated with a plethora of awards, the inaugural imagineNATIVE Alliance-Atlantis Mentorship Award, the Vancouver Arts Award for Emerging Media Artist and credited by ReelWorld Festival who named her Trailblazer, Jackson continues to use film to highlight a history lived by so many and yet known by so few. Lisa is Anishinaabe from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.
 Milloy, John S. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986. University of Manitoba Press, 1999. 91–2; Fournier and Crey, Stolen from Our Embrace. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1997. 49.