Île-à-la-Crosse residential school survivors tell their own stories in award-winning documentary

Brett McKay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com

​Métis filmmaker Matt LeMay said he’s happy the Indigenous Geographic documentary Waiting for Justice is getting a second life on the Canadian film festival circuit.

Last week, Waiting for Justice was named Best Short Documentary at the Toronto Short Film Festival, and it won Best History Film at the Toronto Documentary Festival earlier in March.

The film, co-produced by Indigenous Geographic and the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan (MNS), chronicles the stories of survivors of the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school in Saskatchewan.

For more than a century, Métis children from Northern Saskatchewan suffered physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by staff at the institution until it closed in the 1970s.

Though survivors have been struggling for more than 30 years for acknowledgement, they have yet to be recognized or compensated by any Canadian government for the harm caused to them at the school.

Île-à-la-Crosse residential school, also known as Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school or mission school, was not included in the list of residential schools for survivor compensation under the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement of 2006. About 1,500 students, predominantly Métis children, attended the school over seven generations.

Initially conceived as a “digital executive summary” to accompany the Independent Special Interlocutor’s report on missing children and unmarked graves at Indian residential schools, LeMay said his team wanted to produce a short documentary that “punches people in the heart and enables the survivors to tell their own story.”

The first run of Waiting for Justice included screenings for the Saskatchewan legislature and at The Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa. Now the documentary is finding a larger audience through film festivals and digital distributors, which LeMay hopes will raise awareness and ultimately push elected officials to act on the issue.

“Really our goal is just to keep it out there and keep the pressure on the provincial and federal governments until they do what is right. I think the only way it’s going to happen is by the wider public demanding justice for these people,” said LeMay, who is also the CEO and co-founder of Indigenous Geographic.

“Even since we made the film, one of the survivors that was in the film has passed away. And I think they’ve had about 20 survivors a year passing away. These people are dying, and they and their families are not getting the recognition and the compensation they deserve for the generations of abuse.”

In Waiting for Justice, Île-à-la-Crosse survivor Lawrence Morin said the children only knew the Métis language Michif, but they were strapped when they spoke it.

“This is a true story,” says Île-à-la-Crosse survivor Pat Desjarlais in the film. “It’s just like jail, where I went to school.”

“They gave us numbers,” said Île-à-la-Crosse survivor Max Morin, who was number 66. “They didn’t know our name… I used to like going to school. I wanted to learn. But not to be treated mean and beat up or screamed at all the time inside the boarding school,” he said, shaking his head.

Survivor Robert Merasty remembers he was number 44. “I had to remember that number. If I didn’t, then there was consequences to deal with and that was a constant thing in there.”

Other survivors in the film speak of the sexual abuse they endured, and others the lack of caring, warmth or emotional support that should be shown to children.

Île-à-la-Crosse survivor Emile Janvier sheds tears in the film. He tells audiences that when his grandchildren come to visit, he hugs them “and (I) tell them I love them because 10 months of the year I never heard ‘I love you’.”

In January 2023, after years of failed negotiation attempts, survivors launched a proposed class-action lawsuit against the governments of Canada and Saskatchewan to get compensation that other residential school survivors have been awarded. It’s the second class-action attempted, with one begun in 2005 having stalled out over the ensuing years.

Michelle LeClair, vice-president of MNS, said the documentary was seen by survivors as a good strategy to bring the issue to the general public.

“Because I think there are a lot of people that are under the impression that as a result of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and the residential school inquiry that most schools have been compensated and that survivors have been compensated and recognized” LeClair said.

“Recognition is a huge part of this story,” she said. “This happened. This is real. And we want people to know that this residential school is one of the oldest residential schools in Canada and that it was left out of the TRC process.”

Saskatchewan’s government continues to deny any responsibility for the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school, LeClair said. The failure to acknowledge the truth of abuses experienced at the school continues to harm survivors and stands in the way of reconciliation, she said.

“If the governments of Canada and Saskatchewan are committed to reconciliation, then resolving this issue for our survivors is reconciliation and action. We’ve got to stop talking about reconciliation and actually reconcile with residential school survivors.”

By the time Waiting for Justice screened at the Toronto Short Film Festival, Crystal Martin, Indigenous Geographic CAO and co-founder, had seen the film countless times and had been immersed in the interviews for months. But in a full theatre, as she saw the Île-à-la-Crosse survivor’s survivors’ stories start to connect with the audience, “it was that much more emotional,” she said.

“Hearing people sniffling because they’re crying, looking back and seeing people wiping their tears away, it’s gut wrenching.

“When you’re sitting in that moment and you’re hearing the audience and you can feel their emotions in the air, it was like a bittersweet moment. Because now it wasn’t just a few people or a few of us that know the story. Now we’re walking out with dozens and dozens and dozens of people that are now aware of the atrocities that happened to Métis survivors,” she said.

“And we hope that after watching that they’re walking away and sharing that information to their friends, to their family, to their neighbors, to their community.”

LeMay said Waiting for Justice has been submitted to several other film festivals in Canada and internationally. But, as the list of screenings and accolades grows, there is still one audience LeMay has his heart set on.

“We would love to invite the Prime Minister and the Premier of Saskatchewan to a screening in Île-à-la-Crosse,” LeMay said.

“And it would be amazing if they actually had the courage to show up.”

Waiting for Justice can be viewed online at www.united4survivors.ca.