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

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

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.

*     *     *

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

*   *   *


  • 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.
Add a new comment
  1. What i don’t realize is in reality how you’re no longer actually a lot more well-liked
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    to this topic, produced me personally imagine it from numerous varied angles.
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  2. The Catholic church s/b sued for all they are worth. Then you have their secret recycling of pedafiles, it’s a wonder they are allowed to legally still be in business.

    — Helene,
  3. Camelite Orphanage/Convent (now Carmelite DayCare) 108 Harrison St, Toronto, Ontario same horrific abuse as this movie from nuns, same period of time. Glad I viewed this movie, would absolutely love to have a copy but nowhere to purchase which it should be; proceeds going to our Aboriginal people. Same nuns who abused us children allowed to still run this Day Care & a home for Elderly – our most cherish to-date -took 24 years of legal action to bring to justice, according to Judge this was the longest case in Canada’s history. Was settled unsatisfactory and an insult since same abusive nuns still able to continue. Does society really understand – sadly No. Viewed this movie on TV years ago and my heart broke for the Aboriginal people since I know 1st hand the horrific abuse. It was a total disaster being in this place for 7 years and another total disaster of abuse being 24 years in legal proceedings by Catholic Children’s Aid, Convent lawyer, and Catholic Church not understandable and in some events even abuse.

    — Christina Roberts,
  4. I really had a hard time watching this. How the natives were all treated. I would really love to be able to buy a dvd or the book if possible. Can someone help me find where I can get them. Thank you.

    — Colleen jesse,
  5. Watching the movie opened my eyes and heart to what First Nations people endured. It is disgraceful that children were torn from their families. It is even worse that they were abused by those who were entrusted with their care. This movie broke my heart. I can’t believe that our ‘great’ country allowed such vicious genocide to occur. The enormous loss inflicted upon the First Nations culture is beyond imagination. They lost many generations of their children. It makes me so sad to think of. I commend the First Nations people for speaking up and for telling their stories. Every Canadian should watch this movie and hear the truth. I am of Scottish, Irish and British descent and ashamed of any part any of my ancestors may have played.

    — Shelley,
    1. My father hung himself a week after his heaeing i guess bkuz what they did to him his children n grand kids cOuld not take hus pain away not even 150.000 could make him happy or take the pain away from him it broke my heaet to read what he said happened to him he lived 43 years with a loving wife n 4 kids until the paint got to him too much he couldn’t drown it with alcohol

      — Darci,
  6. I just want to thank the producers and most importantly Glen and Lyna for telling their stories so that I, a non-aboriginal person, can better understand why our aboriginal population struggles as much as they do. Their struggles impact ALL of us. Thank you for te “smack your face” kinda story telling. I needed it. I get it. I now finally understand. I am sorry for the horrors these children endured.

    — Lisa,
  7. This movie allows me to understand more about what has happened to my people, and why a lot of them have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope. Its hurts to hear others of different cultures or other Natives,(who simply have not known the hurt that has come from Residential Schools) easily judge the people who have! They don’t understand what has been done, and the struggle a lot of the people have everyday, not only with what we see in plain sight but what is going on in their minds. Not only have our people suffered first hand… but it has been passed on through family members knowing only what they were taught, from generation to generation. Our people suffer greatly from this. I feel because of this reason I have been deprived my Native heritage. I also feel that a lot of people in my generation want to get our proud, strong, Native people back! We defend our beliefs, our traditional ways, our language, and know now more then ever they need to be saved and cherished. “I will no longer be ashamed of what I am. I will no longer let people tell me what to wear or how to talk. I will love and be loved. I will stand tall with my beautiful long brown hair and brown skin. I will pray to the creator because that is what I believe. That is who I am. That is who I will continue to be.” Migwetch

    — Kris,
  8. Never, never did I believe any person should be made to feel afraid or embarrassed because of their ancestry. This entire experience is so unthinkably horrendous that it defies human reason. The level of inhumanity, disgusting on so many, many levels and most especially as done in the name of ‘christianity’ is to me one of many examples of why such diseased thinking must be erradicated from human society. I try hard to be a Christian but so much of what is referred to as Christian is not by any stretch of the imagination. Only the Creator can fix this. First Nations in Canada, Native Americans in the US, and on to every other nation, it seems there has been a group selected for extermination one way or another by individuals and entities who had something to gain. Always selfishness and greed of some sort as the root cause; someone had something that others wanted for themselves, stood in the way of someone else’s ‘progress’ and consequently entire families and cultures suffered.

    — Naomi,
  9. well lets see i watched this movie 2 times now in total….. and i gotta admit the first time i was extremely upset n hated the church ways, now the 2nd time i am watching it i am grateful in a sense hearing the real stories of 2 strong people representing all the residential survivors….. its tough its the truth n very sad, but i choose to not allow it to affect my life today, yes i come from many generations of residential school survivors, n i am thankful my parents n grandparents raised me not to hold judgement towards any beliefs…. n i am one proud cree women n i will continue on sharing these stories with my future children n grandchildren…. there is alot of strengths n weaknesses that come along with being a nehiyaw but if we all stick together n help one another then the sky is the limit 🙂

    — penny,
  10. I’m 31 yrs old woman, I had both parnets who went to residential school, I was neglected , deprived of love , I was wiped away from my own religion n my culture. My mother n my father never encouraged me or my siblings to take part in some activaties, if you want farther info contact me
    Most of all we were deprive from our parents love because they too,lost there ways of love

    — Miranda,
  11. I just finished watching this movie and trully touched my heart. I am just speechless as to what those christians did t those poor children. Look at what the white man did!
    They are CRUEL. tormenting. Haunting those kids. I know a few elder native lady’s who did go to residential school including my husbands mother. and to see them struggling still after so many years is just heart breaking. to see them drink they’re life away and to know you can’t help them even though you try to. What’s done is done and you can’t go back to it but remember the past.. I wish there would be a way to go back in time and tell those christians to let us live our way and you your own way. To what God did they believe in because the Creator I know would never do wrong. He is the one who made us the way we are and to respect what color we are it makes no difference because we are all the same..
    I feel for all of those who were put in residential schools and wish these kinds of school would never exist.. This is all white mans fault for doing what they did.. they just think they own everything s they ave to go and kill our originality who we are and where we came from.. takes a lot of nerves for what they did and We natives should take back what they destroyed..

    — Mel & Shawne Wolfe,
    1. Catholic not Christians

      — Benjamiona,

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