James Dennis and Charles Pete Tashoots were just six and seven when they were forcibly removed from their homes in Telegraph Creek and brought to the Lejac Indian Residential School, 1,000 kilometres away.
More than 100,000 First Nation families across the country had to surrender children, some under threat of imprisonment. It is perhaps Canada’s greatest shame: a forced attempt at assimilation of First Nation peoples by the Canadian government, for which the wounds remain fresh for thousands of survivors.
However, no other film quite encapsulates the individual grief and collective loss undergone by entire generations of First Nation youth than North Boys: The Story of Jimmy and Charlie, written by Laura Cabott of Whitehorse and Lucy van Oldenbarneveld of Ottawa.
“They couldn’t get me off of my mother. I hung on for dear life,” recounts Dennis of the harrowing day in June 1944 when he, Tashoots and eight other children were torn from their traditional community in northern British Columbia and relocated to a school near Burns Lake, B.C.
When they returned after nine years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, their mothers were dead, their siblings scattered. They had become strangers in their hometown.
Cabott and Van Oldenbarneveld premiered the documentary at Dawson City’s film festival in April.
In May, North Boys won the founder’s award at the Yorkton Film Festival. The award is a special category for films that tell crucial Canadian stories.
The film was also nominated for best director, best socio-political documentary and best emerging filmmaker at the festival.
The project originally came about through Cabott’s work as a legal advocate for residential school survivors. Her longtime friendship with van Oldenbarneveld, a CBC reporter and anchor, yielded a perfect partner for the project.
The two stars of the film were natural storytellers who wanted to share their tale. And their story needed to be heard, said Cabott.
“In my work I’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of the stories from the former residential school students, and each story had an impact on me,” she said. “But the story of Jimmy and Charlie stuck with me. There were aspects of this story that were just so different.”
It wasn’t until the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2008 that survivors of the residential school system were able to have their voices heard. Finally, stories of willful abuse like that suffered by Dennis and Tashoots could reach the public.
Even 70 years later, the feelings of anger, grief and loss are still freshly evident in the film.
“I have never been hugged in my life at school. So how do kids grow up when they haven’t been nourished? You become an animal,” Tashoots told his interviewer. “It did it to me: I drank for over 40 years. Imagine what we could have been! We lost 40 years – then we lost our childhood on top of that.”
The North Boys – so called because they were from so far away they weren’t able to return to their communities over the summer months – had it worse than most. Treated like property of the institution, it fell to them to perform the grisly tasks other students were spared.
At 10 and 11, Dennis and Tashoots were ordered to dig up a graveyard to make way for a new building at the institution. Two of the graves were relatively fresh – friends and fellow students who had died of a type of influenza and were buried at the institution.
“Just when you think you’ve heard the worst of the worst, this story comes up,” said van Oldenbarneveld. “This has haunted these men their whole lives.”
“The clothes were there, and you could see some of the hair on the skull… and the flesh was black as tar,” Dennis recalled. “It stank, holy man. I thought of it for a long time later … I got some stuck on my finger … I wiped it off, washed it …
Two weeks later, I can still smell it.”
As bad as the experiences at Lejac were, returning to the life they once lived was even more difficult.
“My mother wasn’t there to meet me, my sisters and brothers weren’t there to meet me – they didn’t know who I was,” Dennis said. “Holy man, I never felt (so) alone in all my life.”
“It don’t seem like it’s our people, that’s the thing that’s hard. We’re just like other people to them – strangers – in your own hometown. Imagine how we felt,” Tashoots added.
The two men would go on to drift across Canada and the United States, combating demons and alcoholism from North Bay, Ontario, to Seattle, Washington. They worked at mining and labourer jobs in towns and camps along the way before finally seeking treatment for alcohol abuse and returning home to Lower Post and Good Hope Lake.
With that, the film’s stark symbolism and wintry scenes of cold and slumbering death eventually give way to spring, grandchildren and hope.
The film closes with a poetic and reflective Dennis talking about the four seasons and nearing the end of his journey in life, while showing Tashoots speaking to a luncheon in Lower Post, and enjoying the company of his grandchildren.
“The earlier scenes are certainly dark – with the owl, a symbol of death, and the raven, a very important figure in First Nations culture,” van Oldenbarneveld said. “But by the end you can see that a new day is dawning. There’s some hope here. When we see this hope, that they’ve combated alcoholism, that people in this community love them and know them and view them as mentors – that’s where the hope lies.”
The film is long overdue, said Cabott.
“All of the stories that I’ve heard were all told in confidential and closed legal proceedings. People were passing away and their stories were dying with them. We just thought: Let’s do this.”
This is the duo’s first foray into filmmaking. Van Oldenbarneveld directed and narrated, while Cabott served as executive producer.
A screening in Whitehorse is planned for this autumn. The film will be available in local bookstores soon.