Film gives a sobering look at Indian residential school history

Port Alberni, BC

A newly released film is being screened across Canada, allowing elders and residential school survivors to view the graphic movie with support people in place.

Bones of Crows, released last fall, chronicles the life of Aline Spears, a Cree matriarch and residential school survivor. Produced by Marie Clements, who is of Métis/Dene descent, the film examines 100 years of Canadian history through the lens of Aboriginal people and a mostly Indigenous cast.

“The Bones of Crows is told through the eyes of Cree Matriarch Aline Spears as she survives a childhood in Canada’s residential school system to continue her family’s generational fight in the face of systemic starvation, racism, and sexual abuse,” says the film website. “She uses her uncanny ability to understand and translate codes into working for a special division of the Canadian Air Force as a Cree code talker in World War II. The story unfolds over 100 years with a cumulative force that propels us into the future.”

Grace Dove stars as Aline Spears from young adulthood to elder. Emerging child actor Summer Testawich delivers an emotional performance as young Aline, first, as a happy child with parents and siblings, followed by heart-breaking scenes when she is forcefully wrenched from her family to be taken to residential school and the subsequent abuse she suffered there.

The film is packed with images of the unvarnished history of Indigenous Canadians. There are references to racism, addictions, family violence, child sexual abuse, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the foster care system, the prison system and, even though it was filmed before the 215 graves were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, it contains references to unmarked burials at a residential school.

Cricket Testawich is the mother of child actor Summer Testawich. Summer was only nine when the film was shot. She has just celebrated her 11th birthday and has been on tour, along with her mother and other cast and crew, for Canada-wide screening events.

Cricket says that the free screening of the new film provides an opportunity for survivors and warriors to view the film with supports in place.

“It’s an opportunity for the Indigenous-based community [the have] a chance to come together to see their history be reflected on the screen and to be supported,” she told Ha-Shilth-Sa.

Representatives of the charity I Love First Peoples are on tour with the cast and crew, offering support during the community dialogue, which follows every screening. In Port Alberni, elders from the Indian Residential School Survivor’s Society were on hand to offer cultural support in the form of brushing or smudging.

Cricket Testawich said she is grateful that supports are in place at the screenings, saying that producer Marie Clements took the history and made it more real.

“It gives a greater understanding of who we are as a people,” said Testawich.

She was also grateful that Clements paid close attention to the well-being of the actors, including Summer.

“Marie protected her (Summer), she made sure that [Summer] could walk with the story and not carry it,” said Testawich.

Calling it an incredible honour to play an important role in the film, Summer Testawich said it’s been a real blessing and is proud that she’s reaching this generation of people.

“Each one of us has a history and history can change futures,” said Summer, adding that she’s honoured to bring this story to the world.

Bones of Crows has been touring across Canada since September 2022. The Vancouver Island tour is happening through mid-February and has been in Port Alberni at the Port Alberni Friendship Center and ADSS. It has been seen in communities from Port Hardy to Victoria, and the feedback has been great.

Some screenings held at high schools during classroom hours were for students only.

The screenings were hosted by Ian Speirs of I Love First Peoples, location manager Jerome Turner, as well as Bones of Crows actors Kindall Charters and Summer Testawich. The community tour was made possible through the support of sponsors including Rogers, I Love First Peoples, Indigenous Screen Office, Shaw Rocket Fund, Canada Media Fund and others.

“The response to the film has been phenomenal,” said Cricket.

Students were engaged and wanted to know what is next, how can they help, she added.

“This film is opening those conversations – this is not just the past, it is still here, now,” said Cricket.

Non-Indigenous people have also shared their thoughts. Some said they thought they knew all about residential school, but they really didn’t, according to Cricket.

Principal Derrick Shaw of Valemount Secondary School saw the film in November.

"Bones of Crows presents an opportunity to look through lens of Indigenous people of the land in a manner that connects the dots of so many chapters of our past, highlighting numerous injustices, life altering experiences and the physical and mental abuse and resulting scars,” he wrote. “I believe Bones of Crows is a gateway to the conversations required to advance a true truth and reconciliation relationship with all Canadians.”

“This history will never repeat itself – we will never let it happen again,” said Cricket Testawich.

Winner of the 2023 Victoria Film Festival Cultural Currents Award, Bones of Crows is also on the film festival circuit internationally, including the Berlinale European Film Market - EFM and Māoriland Film Festival.

Bones of Crows will be released in theatres in the spring of 2023 followed by a five-part mini series that will air on CBC in the fall.

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