We Were Children: Reactions from Residential School Survivors and Other Viewers


In Canada’s relatively short and placid history, few episodes are as troubling and atrocious as the Canadian government’s Residential School System.

Between the 1840s and the not-so-distant year of 1996, these institutions, funded by the government and run by the church, stole Aboriginal children from their families, shipped them to schools thousands of kilometers away, abused them physically, mentally and sexually and knowingly contaminated them with tuberculosis, all while deliberately obliterating their sense of self, heritage and culture.

The abuses went far. Survivors of St. Anne’s school, in Fort Albany, Ontario, reported having been tortured on an electric chair for the amusement of visiting dignitaries. Boys there were forced to masturbate while showering together in plastic skirts. Others were made to eat their own vomit. In Alberta, young Native and Métis women had their fallopian tubes removed by force, rendering them sterile for life. Throughout the country, dead children were hastily buried in unmarked graves without the notification or consent of their parents.

The aim of these schools? Destroying Aboriginal culture by assimilating Aboriginal children into good Christian Canadians.

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an apology to Aboriginal people for the ill treatment they suffered at the hands of successive Federal governments – “a sad chapter” in Canadian history, he said.

With this apology came the announcement of a “common experience payment” (of a total of a little over 1 billion dollars, to be allocated to the 80,000 surviving Residential School victims) as well as the introduction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a commission tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing in the hope of resolving left-over conflict.

Last year, the NFB released We Were Children, a feature drama examining the profound impact of the Residential School system through the eyes of 2 survivors, Lyna and Glen. Here’s the trailer:

We Were Children, Tim Wolochatiuk, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The film was very well received, by Natives and Non-Natives alike. After a series of broadcasts on APTN, our screening site and blog were flooded by comments. Ranging from anger to sorrow, and often blending both, these comments touched on many different realities awakened within viewers. (We Were Children is now available for download or rental, as well as on DVD.)

Some survivors were appalled their stories were being fictionalized for the entertainment of the masses. Others, reporting their childhood traumas had never been taken seriously, felt heard and vindicated, while some of their descendants said the film helped them finally put their difficult family puzzles together.

Lest we remain, in the words of Marie Wilson, a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “comfortably blind” when it comes to Canada’s Residential School system, here are a few of these reactions. Only the truth, it is said, will set you free.

Note: Comments were edited for length but were otherwise unaltered.

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This story, in all of its honesty and brutality and resilience, needs to be told to every canadian. I didn’t hear about residential schools until University, and that is absolutely unacceptable.
– Lisa

On the Rez u hear bits & pieces from elders, but there is disconnect from emotion. Now I know why. I will have this lump in throat and hurt heart for a long time to come.
– Bluehen

I feel broken. I now understand why my mother was “embarrassed” to tell me she was native until I was 15 years old. I never understood why she kept that a “secret”. Now I understand 🙁
– ididntknow

i am glad that the truth is comming out .it will be a great impack on todais sociaty and make them see the outher side of the medal and finally break the steriotype that they have about aborigial peaple.the truth is the most powerful weapon to use.
– frank fournier

“We Were Children” made me sob many times I was completely heartbroken …..the cruelty they endured by the hands of “God Loving People” was unbelievable cruelty……is it that they thought we were less than human to think it was okay to inflict such harm dehumanize starve abuse for sexual pleasure….did they really think that in their Gods eyes what happened was allowable on our race because in their eyes they saw nothing but “Savages”. 1996 was the last Residential school…..its no wonder this day an age that seed of thought still lingers in the minds of those who think they are better than…………
– Rosalin Innes

I want to hug my children and my grandchildren and I am so grateful that they get to live with me and I didn’t have to lose my children to the schools like my ancestors. The People in this film are younger than I am –when the woman said “I wanted to be in Hell with my people.” Because we were taught that is what where our ancestors are I thought oh my I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. So that was DDT they put in our hair.
– Tommig

I just finished watching this film. I am not an Aboriginal person . I am Christian, but not Roman Catholic, and when Glen said, “I don’t know what kind of God they have” , I was thinking the same thing! My God abhors that kind of behavior. For these courageous people to have the strength to come forward and relive their pain all over again is amazing. I applaud them for that! And I am deeply grieved not only that this happened, but that it happened through people who were supposed to be representing Christ. They have, in essence, dragged His name through the mud.
– Lori

In my younger years I remember feeling ashamed of my identity as an aboriginal person. It wasn’t until I started learning about the residential school system and what my people went through that I starting understanding why I felt the way I did. And I had no reason to be feeling this way. It pains me to hear the stories, but they have to be told. Even though I didn’t directly endear any of the abuse and pain, I feel it. Today I can honestly say I’m proud to be a First Nation person and I’m proud of my people.
– Margaret Shawanamash

As I watched “We Were Children” tonight, I was deeply disturbed by what these innocent children suffered at the hands of people who called themselves representatives of God. They may have been teaching truths from the Bible, but they were monsters and definitely not representatives of God. I am glad that more and more RC pedophile priests such as these are being exposed. (…) Many times I had to wipe tears from my eyes as I watched this program. The Canadian government indeed failed the aboriginal people. Prime Minister Diefenbaker and Prime Minister Pearson did not do their job to protect all peoples of Canada. (…) As a non-aboriginal Canadian I want to apologize to all the students of these residential schools, who suffered such abuse and had no one who would listen or help them.
– Eric O’Blenis

this movie brought out alot of memories of when i was in residential school most of it is still hidden in the back of my mind its a horrible experience for any child to go through im a survivor of that and i am what i am today because of that,,, i learned to survive and still surviving
– elizabeth kakepetum

Watched “We were children” and brought back memories about AIRS in Port Alberni BC I think there needs to be more of these stories told. True books need to be published about the schools and they shouldn’t be watered down by anyone. We were sexually abused in those schools and nobody believed us.
– Jack Thompson

how can a second generation survivor handle what my parents went through ????????
– Jesse Joe

I hope that there will be follow-up documentaries about how this system led to the breakdown of family life in so many First Nation families and that it will show exactly why native parents had no clue how to nurture and raise their children after facing the residential school experience.
– Linda

The world needs to know what happen to our people. 7 generation’s were stolen from us. When you desecrate a culture, a language and tradition you demolish the very foundation of a human being. I am out west and I would like to see this film on the prime time channels and networks. My hope is that the producers of this film will get into the larger networks where they team up with the Spielberg’s of the world and make a film where the world can see and understand why we as Aboriginal people have struggled all these years. (…) This needs to be in our schools where our young people can learn of the history of what happen to our people, it’s imperative. Thousands of our people are still trying to heal and are suffering in silence. If we do not deal with what has happen to our families, friends and communities, than the next 2-3 generations will still be suffering from the effects of the Residential School system.
– Chris Sankey

Where we live here in hazelton, bc there are allot of survivors, that endured similar abuse, I recall reading in the interior news paper how one child had to assist in burial of children who were murdered. He was Gitxsan. It hurts to know that I too have grandparents, and a parent who also went to these church run hell on earth places! It has affected us all even though we didnt go to residential schools! My grandmother physically abused me and her own children who also abused nephews of the family. abused alcohol, strange men were creeping around our rooms at night while she was partying and drunk! SO I firmly believe that it still has its ripple effect! THanks to them trying to kill the indian in the child! (…) My gran went through hell! Today I still am angry! I was sexually raped as a child, beaten! All because those fucks did what they did to MY GRAN!
– TJ

My daughter watched it too….I was sort of reluctant but I felt it was important for her to know…..she too cried was angered and had many questions…..I had to tell her it was ok to feel angered but to not carry it with her because things for this generation I hope have changed. The best way I explained it to her on why this happened was land they only wanted our land and didn’t want the newer generation to put up a fight so they opted to control them and they did it in a way so that they appeared to be helpfull but really didn’t care!
– Rosalin

First time watching We Were Children. I am so mad, and completely upset. Never had I cried that much with such anger and fear. I was shaking, and the image of what happened to our people is engraved in my mind now. Changes my perspective on a lot of things. It’s a dark past, and I realize now, that more than ever who I am as a First Nations person. I am a proud Cree woman, who is no longer afraid to stand up for our people. (…) My goal now is to raise awareness of who we are, and where we have come from for future generations, so our traditions won’t die. So our grandchildren will know who they are, so they will hold their heads up as proud First Nations people. Our children are our future.
– Corrine Clyne

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  • The film contains very strong content. We do not recommend it for anyone under 16 years of age.
  • We strongly recommend that there is an opportunity for all audiences, whether in a classroom, living room, or community hall, to ‘debrief’ after watching the film, to share their own stories, or feelings about the film. This is an important step for all audiences.
  • If you need emotional support, please contact Health Canada.