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Residential school survivor Geraldine Robertson in a frame from the documentary 'We Are Still Here.' Courtesy of Dwayne Cloes

Roads to reconciliation

A United Church-funded documentary preserves the difficult memories of residential school survivors

By Nicole Laidler

Geraldine Robertson was 11 years old when her father died and her mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Shortly after, a government agent collected Robertson and her two younger sisters from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ont., and put them on a train to Brantford, Ont. That was the beginning of Robertson’s experience at the Mohawk Institute Residential School.

Almost 70 years later, she and two other residential school survivors — Sylvia Deleary and Susie Jones, both of Bjekwanong First Nation on Walpole Island, Ont. — share their memories in We Are Still Here, a new documentary produced by the right relations group of Lambton Presbytery and paid for through a grant from the United Church’s Justice and Reconciliation Fund, with matching funds from London Conference and Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

“Relatives started asking me questions about what life was like at the schools,” Robertson says. Many had parents who had been raised in the residential school system and came looking for answers about their own upbringing. “In order for the second generation to find forgiveness and peace in their hearts with how they had been raised, I thought they should know what had taken place at the schools, how their parents as children had been raised at these schools, and how abusive it was.”

Robertson credits Rev. Matthew Stevens, her minister at St. Clair United in Sarnia, with encouraging her to share her memories with churches, schools and other community groups. She served on the United Church’s national committee on Indigenous justice and residential schools and on London Conference’s living into right relations committee.

This year, Robertson was nominated for the Order of Ontario in recognition of her long-standing dedication to exposing the truth about Canada’s residential school system.

“Those of us who are survivors are getting older,” Robertson notes. “We felt filming our stories was something important that needed to be done.”

Last year, the London Conference right relations committee hired Sarnia filmmaker Dwayne Cloes to help preserve the women’s stories. Cloes spent three months taping interviews and editing hours of film into a 40-minute documentary.

After an emotional private screening for friends and family at Walpole Island, We Are Still Here debuted to a packed theatre at the Sarnia public library in February. Since then, interest in the documentary has grown. “It’s pretty much been one screening a week,” Cloes says.

The film is often met with tears and disbelief, he adds. “And at almost every screening, a First Nations person will stand up and say, ‘I was at a residential school, and I’ve never talked about it.’”

We Are Still Here is available on YouTube, as is a 17-minute version of the documentary. “I tried to create a film that can be screened in schools,” Cloes explains. “Those are the young people we need to reach.”

Robertson echoes his sentiment. “We need to teach the children the truth about residential schools, across Canada and in our own communities,” she says. “If you want to find true healing, you do need to face your demons.”

Nicole Laidler is a freelance writer in London, Ont.

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