“As a Blackfoot woman, I have a high statistic of going missing or being murdered,” notes high school student Karsen Black Water. Her stark testimony was shared with an assembly of secondary students at the Werklund School of Education’s semi-annual Youth Leadership Forum and is the opening of Elders’ Room, a documentary directed by Dr. Shirley Steinberg, PhD.
This is one of many insights Black Water and her grandfather Kainai Blood Tribe Elder Peter Weasel Moccasin convey during the 24-minute film. Throughout the documentary, each discusses Canada’s Indian Residential School system; Black Water reveals how shocking it was to learn the truth about these government-sponsored facilities, while Weasel Moccasin relates his personal experience and explains how many survivors chose to shield their children and grandchildren from their ordeal.
“To hear a 17-year-old young woman so accurately and candidly discuss the reality of being First Nations in our contemporary world is yet another realization of the realities facing Indigenous females in North America today,” says Steinberg, research professor of critical youth studies in the Werklund School of Education.
This acuity inspired Steinberg to shift the direction of her film to Black Water and Weasel Moccasin. She explains that her initial idea was to make a film about the lodge built by students, teachers, counsellors and Elders at Kainai High School. Intended as a space to reflect and engage in cultural practices, the lodge, or Elders’ Room, was built with financial support provided to schools participating in the Werklund School’s youth forum.
Years ago, Steinberg lived and taught near Kainai and was eager to reconnect with the community through the forum. “Kainai High School was one of the 20-plus schools who attended twice a year. When I heard about the lodge that the Forum money funded, I was drawn to seeing the result.”
Steinberg adds, “I have witnessed many events and experiences in the room; it warms me every moment, sitting on Pendleton blankets or on the floor on buffalo skins.”
Bringing Black Water’s and Weasel Moccasin’s stories to a broad audience through the film was of great importance to Steinberg. “There are many stories in Canada from those who no one wants to listen to. The truths spoken by Karsen and Peter are truths that must be heard and learned by Canadian students.”
Some of these truths are difficult to hear. Weasel Moccasin speaks candidly about the dread he felt at the end of every summer, when it was time to return to St. Paul’s Indian Residential School. This dread continued into adulthood and impacted his mental health. He credits his parents’ traditional ways and his knowledge of the Blackfoot language with helping him to heal.
Black Water says that through learning of those experiences, she has come to understand how fortunate she was to have had the childhood many of her family members were denied.
The legacy of residential schools, as well as long-standing land claims, the lack of clean water supply and other critical issues that continue to impact Indigenous communities today leave many to question the work of reconciliation. What can be done when the scope of these challenges seems so vast?
Dr. Yvonne Poitras Pratt, PhD’11, director of Indigenous education in the Werklund School, offers some guidance. “These things matter, but most of these issues remain outside our control. What we can do as educators and everyday citizens is, as Paulette Regan reminds us, to take our own small courageous steps towards reconciliation because doing nothing is simply not an option anymore."
To ensure the depth of the discourses imparted were artfully captured, Steinberg partnered with McEwan University associate professor Michael B. MacDonald. This collaboration has resulted in numerous awards, including Steinberg for Best Short Documentary Director at the Toronto Women’s Film Festival, as well as earning Official Selection status and Honourary Mentions at prestigious events such as the New York Independent Cinema Awards and the Tokyo International Short Film Festival.
Once the film has completed the festival circuit, Steinberg and MacDonald plan to apply for funding to develop a curriculum unit for use with the film in middle schools.
While proud of the accolades, Steinberg says the people are what matters. “The youth in the film play high school basketball, they have dreams, they have fears, they have challenges, they have successes. It’s important that Canadians begin to recognize that all our youth count, all our youth are valuable.”
Fittingly, the film closes with the voice of youth — Black Water affirming to the gathered students that she is proud to be a Blackfoot woman.
Elders’ Room will be screened as part of the upcoming NorthwestFest in Edmonton and can be viewed for a limited time at Film Freeway.