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Truth, Dance and Reconciliation

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Subject(s): Arts, Canadian History, Canadian Social Studies, First Nations Studies, History, Social Studies
Grade Level: 6 - 8, 9 - 12, Post Secondary, Adult

The story of Canada's residential school system and its traumatic consequences is one of the darkest and most troubling truths about our history, but the Royal Winnipeg Ballet suggested an unlikely - but powerful way for the country to learn and heal from decades of pain.

This documentary explores the one-year artistic gestation of the ballet through footage recorded at dance rehearsals, creative team gatherings, Aboriginal cultural retreats, and on opening night in Winnipeg. Interviews with creative team members and dancers reveal the apprehension they felt while creating and presenting a ballet about this dark side of Canadian history. Going Home Star is the name of their critically acclaimed original ballet, based on astory by The Orenda novelist Joseph Boyden and featuring music from Tanya Tagaq. The title comes from the aboriginal name for the North Star – the Going Home Star – which helped the native people in their navigations.

Powerfully interwoven with the story of the ballet's creation is the story of one former student and her experiences at a residential school. Fifty years later, her story intersects with the stories of the ballet's creators when she attends a performance of Going Home Star. It’s a story of truth, dance and reconciliation. The moving piece was commissioned with the support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The coming-together of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and the unique fusion of European and First Nation art forms to tell the story of Canada's residential schools, marks an important addition to our country's artistic legacy.

Running Time: 43:00
Country of Origin: Canada
Captions: CC
Producer: Aarrow Productions
Copyright Date: 2013
Language: English


  • A service begins each day. They have a total of 11,000 pupils-- orphans, convalescents, those who live too far in the wilderness to get to a daily school. They learn not only games and traditions, such as the celebration of St. Valentine's Day, but the mastery of words, which will open to them the whole range of the ordinary Canadian curriculum. They come to school in September, go home for holidays in June-- instead of the isolation and neglect of the past, a free and equal chance with children in urban centers.
  • What's the date for the-- is it end of September or first week of October?
  • It's the first week of October.
  • It is the first of October.
  • Yeah.
  • It's for the performance?
  • For the [INAUDIBLE] series.
  • Yeah, it's already locked.
  • We have to also do A Handmaid's Tale--
  • A Handmaid's Tale, the tour.
  • --and Moulin Rouge. So we have a significant amount of works.
  • Actually, it starts back probably 10 years ago, when Mary [? Richard ?] and I spoke. She is an elder from Winnipeg. She was associated with the Thunderbird House. She had seen another work we had done, which had an aboriginal theme, which was The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, which was based on George Ryga's theater piece of the same title. Mary really wanted to do another work. And we started speaking about some ideas. She passed away, unfortunately, and we were never able to fulfill that vision of hers.
  • Andre decided that he would choose Mark Godden for the choreographer. Mark Godden then, as director of creation, starts bringing the idea together.
  • Don't make any noise--
  • Mary is a very profound choreographer. And he really works things through intellectually. He spends a lot of time researching before he goes in and puts the steps in. We wanted to commission music. So Mark did a lot of research and found Christos Hatzis. Christos has done various different things with music. And it's very classically based, but very contemporary classical music. And he decided on Tanya and Steve Wood and the Northern Cree.
  • So this became a true collaboration. And because of the material, it couldn't, I think, be a single story. It couldn't be a single person. It had to be the whole group collaborating. So Andre and the artistic team, the creation team, production team-- they all had to work together to build this from the ground up.
  • We needed someone to help us work on the story. And Tina and Mark talked about Joseph Boyden. So they brought him in.
  • I want to extend a special thank you to Mr. Joseph Boyden, who is here hanging out with Ms. Weir in her social studies class, doing a presentation.
  • I told you guys, it's a big deal.
  • On behalf of all of us at Lambrick, Mr. Boyden, thank you very much for being here.
  • Then one day, I get a phone call from my dear friend. Her name's Tina Keefer. She a Cree, amazing Cree woman. She says, Joseph we're creating a ballet. And we'd want you to be in it. And I said to Tina, you don't want to see me dance.
  • You don't want to see me in tights, either. Trust me. And she goes, no, no, no. We don't want you dancing. We want you to write the ballet. We want you to create it. And I said, sure, OK. And then I hang up and go, what did I just get myself into? How do you write a ballet? I know nothing about dance.
  • And so for months and months I regretted my decision. Why I wasn't able to is I didn't understand the format. I didn't understand the language. Because I can't sit down and say, OK, this is where he does pirouette. And they said, no. This is not the point. We want a story. Give us a story that we can create the ballet from.
  • Easy. Nice.
  • We wanted to create a ballet to show in Winnipeg over the course of five nights, dealing with residential school. These were schools forcefully-- where hundreds of thousands of native Canadian children and Inuit MAT children were taken from their families and put into these very cold institutions. These were the only schools in Canada or in the world, that I know of, where when they built the school, they built a cemetery beside it because they knew that the death rate of so many of these children through disease, through malnutrition, through running away and dying of exposure, through-- unfortunately-- abuse was going to happen.
  • My name is Barbara Esau. I have an Indian name. My Indian name is [NON-ENGLISH]. When you translate that to English, it's "helping others go across the bridge." I come from a family of 11 siblings. There's three boys in the family and eight females. I'm the third oldest in the family. There was three of us that went to residential school. The first year, I was tormented already by the nuns there. I went through a lot of beatings. I went through a lot of strapping. I went through a lot of physical abuse.
  • How do you write about something so heavy and so tough and give that story to dancers who are going to perform it? And that really got stuck. And then I realized, you know what? I'm going to write a simple story on the surface. And the weight of this story, that 9/10 of that iceberg of this story, is going to be the residential schools.
  • Going Home Star is the story of a young contemporary First Nations woman named Annie. Living in the city, she is disconnected from her heritage and usually ends her days at parties taking part in carefree, casual encounters. She enjoys her life but she feels as though she is missing something integral to her identity.
  • Gordon is a First Nations man who ran away from residential school as a child. He is a survivor and the memories of his upbringing and culture are alive within him. The two crossed paths on a subway platform and are immediately drawn to one another. Annie senses that Gordon holds the key to understanding her heritage. And Gordon sees within Annie a kindred, disconnected spirit. Gordon becomes the person who teaches Annie about her people, her past, and ultimately her story.
  • Annie begins to dream about an ancient woman pulling a great weight through blowing snow. She visits Gordon to see that he has his own weight to bear, a model of residential school that he carries within him. He struggles to hold it by himself. But with Annie's help, he is finally able to stand tall. Gordon shares the story of his time at residential school, of the abusive clergyman who subjected children to corporal punishment. He tells Annie of the horrors of assimilation, cruelty, and rape. Together, they embark on a journey of healing in this celebration of indigenous history and culture.
  • I was really happy that I got to learn about the whole history and about the residential schools. Because I don't know-- I was definitely one of those people who had no idea that that had happened. And I didn't know anything about it.
  • What was really special for me-- I remember, there was one rehearsal. We were just running the whole ballet. It was in Act One. And it was one of the parts where Gordon, played by Liang, he's showing me what happened. And he was teaching me about my past and what happened in the residential schools. And I was really into it You as Annie. And then I realized that she is just like me. She has no idea. And she's just living her life. And she just doesn't know, because she wasn't taught. But it was really interesting for me. Because that moment, I realized that she is me and I am her.
  • Going into a residential school, you're six years old. You're used to eating certain types of foods. You go into residential school, you're introduced to foreign foods that you've never eaten before. So one of the foreign foods for me was cornflakes. Never had cornflakes in my life. I grew up on porridge at home-- porridge, Red River cereal, cream of wheat-- that kind of stuff. So what happened to me was I didn't want to eat the cornflakes. And the nun noticed I wasn't eating my cornflakes. And I was passing the food over. I got caught. She grabbed me by the back of my head, pulled my head back, grabbed the cornflakes, and shoved them in my throat. And she said, swallow. Swallow.
  • This is a story of Canada. This is one of our stories that we have for years and decades and centuries refused to really face as a nation. But now we're realizing we not only have to face this story as a nation, we need to, that for almost 100 years our First Nations people across the country were not allowed to practice their own dance-- this idea that we now are presenting a ballet to Canada of dance for the survivors, for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in order to try to honor and understand a little bit better what we've done as a nation and where we've gone through as a nation.
  • I think ballet cuts right to the heart of what's most beautiful, physically, in humanity and what's most beautiful in terms of story. We're taking a very European form and introducing it to a very aboriginal experience. I found out that there won't be aboriginal dancers. And that, at first, really freaked me out. I was like hm, I don't know. How do we go forward without that representation?
  • But then I realized, this is about truth and reconciliation. It's about the crossing over of nations and a better understanding of things. This is a production that is mixed races and mixed peoples. I think it makes perfect sense. And so I'm really hoping that this will move on beyond Winnipeg, to the rest of the world, and young people who are aboriginal will want to be a part of it and play a role. I think that we'll find a way to meld this meeting of two very different places in a fascinating way on that stage.
  • Just before we premiered the ballet in Winnipeg, we were actually-- the whole artistic staff and the dancers-- we were all invited to one of the reserves in Winnipeg. And we got to go to this huge open field. And we participated, for the first time, in smudging and all these ceremonies.
  • Hi, everybody. We're just getting-- we're just prepping some of the ceremonial stuff. Hi, [INAUDIBLE].
  • I know I come from China. It has a different culture. But I can feel. I still remember the first time they played the drum almost make me cry. I don't know why. It just shake my soul. So I can feel this energy. So they transfer the motion to me.
  • We had Ted Fontaine share with people too about his experience at residential schools. Ted is an elder from Saugeen First Nation. He was very generous with the dancers throughout the process and made himself available to them. And the whole event was staff and the dancers and the elders that worked with the project.
  • I'm what you've heard being called a survivor. I went to residential schools, starting in 1948. It was my home for the time I was seven years old. The ceremonies you saw here-- this was part of my life, up to seven years old. And then it got completely, completely destroyed when I entered residential school. I lost all this. I was made to believe that it didn't have a place in the life of human beings. The most difficult part is the forgiveness, the forgiveness of what happened for mental, spiritual, physical, and sexual abuse.
  • When we got out, we had no idea they had prepared a huge dinner, a huge feast, for us. And we had no idea that they were going to do that. And the food was so delicious. And we just got to eat together. And I'll never forget that.
  • These are the-- what Mark refers to as the divine [? Louis, ?] the colonial marauders. These are the urban people that populate the world of Annie in the city, just city people. And all of the colors of the urban people are all colors of bruises-- purples, and blues, and green. And so it's all sad and dark colors. We didn't talk about this character, or Mark didn't talk about this character, until maybe last month. So this was a late addition.
  • So originally, there was only a mother figure. But a father figure was added. Because my costume designs had to be finished in May, and Mark hadn't even started choreographing the ballet. So the ballet is choreographed much later because of the time frame for getting everything done. So it's fast and furious at the end. So there's a lot to do. But still, there has to be enough flexibility in what I do to be able to insert what happens in the studio so that Mark can be spontaneous with his art, as a choreographer. And everything, everything is hand done. And this is depicting the colonizers coming from Europe, with their ships.
  • I didn't attend the ballet regularly as a child. I'm from a completely different culture. One of the interesting aspects of this whole project, and the whole discussion, is about culture and art. I, as an artist, have always felt compelled to look at my own culture and look at my own history and find art there. We were really in a process of reconciliation. And it was a process of just incredible creativity and incredible respect. And we, in the collaboration-- well, the artists in the collaboration-- were able to create something, I think, far greater than we had ever imagined in the beginning.
  • I'm just going to do two on the side.
  • I'm a sole artist. I'm a solo artist. And I have a very difficult time collaborating with other artists, because I'm a twin. And I'm very protective of my practice. So to do a collaboration like this was very challenging for me. And Mark has been really great in guiding me and telling me, just be free with this. Obviously, I have to take a lot of direction from Mark. Because he has to create an environment for the dancers. And he has to take in the storyline.
  • And so he would tell me, OK, I'd like to see this wall. And I'd like to see this wall. And I'd like to see this. And so he would give me quick sketches of what he's thinking of. And then I would go in and I would start fine tuning it, bringing my own spin to it, and thinking about my own aesthetic. I like to create things that are beautiful. But what I like to do is also create some of the underlines of the darkness of our world.
  • My name is Christos Hatzis. And I'm a composer. And one of the happiest days of my life was when Mark called me out of the blue to ask me to get involved with this project. I think my role, as well as Mark, is to become cultural translators-- for a very specific ballet audience, and then take the culture, which is not related at all to the ballet world, and make their language, their stories, to translate and be understood, as much as getting to know the people through music and everybody telling their own stories.
  • The important thing about this project, the reason why I wanted to be part of it, was because I couldn't hear-- one more time I couldn't hear, when are you going to get over it, without any understanding of history. And I thought, well, the only way that we can reach a more egalitarian society is if we have to almost forego the government and elicit empathy. And you only get empathy from good people. And you can only get empathy by telling a story.
  • But I thought, you know what? This opportunity is being given to me to break my preconceptions of what a ballet is. I've never been in one. I didn't know-- seeing the dancers, really watching them in their beautiful talent, and feeling how giving and thankful they were to be part of it.
  • I never seen so many Indians at a ballet! [LAUGHS] So many people are like, I'm at a ballet?
  • It was really awesome to see just throwing the people together, like a genesis of sorts-- how wonderful it was to see people leaving there feeling good and strong, and seeing people leaving there crying their faces off that had no idea.
  • We've had a wonderful journey. It hasn't always been easy, because it's a difficult story to tell. But we have had truly a wondrous time doing so. And this is Andre Lewis He is the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
  • Thank you, very much, [INAUDIBLE].
  • I think we've created an incredible work. Certainly the response we heard from many of the survivors who came and saw some of the rehearsals and the witnesses-- it's something very, very special, very powerful, unlike anything we've ever done in this organization. So thank you for being here.
  • I'm an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and so this is-- one of my missions in life is to, through my art-- but also through meeting young people exactly like you-- to spread the word of what has happened and how we move forward. Reconciliation is only going to happen in this country, not just through indigenous peoples' actions. It's going to happen through the actions of all of us, of understanding what our real history is, of being taught and then teaching our children that our history is-- we're a great country. But man, we've done some horrid and horrendous things in our past that we have to be held accountable for and we have to understand.
  • SINGING: We don't belong here. We don't belong here. We don't belong here.
  • I grew up on porridge at home-- porridge, Red River cereal, cream of wheat, that kind of stuff. So what happened to me was I didn't want to eat the cornflakes. And the nun noticed I wasn't eating my cornflakes. And I was passing the food over. I got caught. And she grabbed me by the back of my head, pulled my head back, grabbed the cornflakes, and shoved them in my throat. And she said, swallow. Swallow. And I did.
  • And right after I swallowed, I threw it up. So what happened is I threw up into my bowl. And the nun said, you're going to eat that. So she'd grab my vomit and stuck it back in my throat. And I threw up again. And at this point, she's very angry with me. And so she got-- she got another nun to help her. They pulled out a table. And they stripped me of my clothes. And I'm standing naked, in front of all the girls, all the boys. We all had one big dining area. And they put me on that table. And they brought a strap out. And they started beating me with a strap. And one of the nuns held me down.
  • And when they were done in the dining room, they took me upstairs to the dormitory. I was still naked. And I remember being put on my bed and the one and held me down. And they kept beating me and beating me.
  • I remember, at one point I was able to grab the belt, a leather belt, that they were using on me. And I flung it across the room-- a six-year-old. And I remember yelling at the nun. I said, I'm going to tell my grandfather on you. All I could think was my grandparents. And I don't remember anything after that.
  • Residential schools affected hundreds of thousands of people over the course of seven generations, 140 years of residential schools in this country. And I compared it to a tsunami in slow motion, if you can imagine a tsunami, the water rolling up-- a destructive, destructive force, destroying homes, destroying families, destroying lives, killing people.
  • The tsunami was residential schools. And then it continued to push forward, even when residential schools' doors were closed. Because people didn't know, didn't understand, or didn't care-- the majority of Canadians. But now we're starting to hear about this, what affected such a huge part of our population. And that tsunami is now starting to recede. And when you see a tsunami recede, you see the beaches. And they're covered in the detritus and the destruction.
  • But you have to start picking up and building. And as artists, and as students, and as scientists, as sports people, we all have that ability in us to start picking up the pieces and rebuilding together. And it's not going to be the same as it was in the past. You can't go back home again, right? But we can rebuild and maybe make something even more beautiful together.
  • The Going Home Star is one spoke in what I see as a wheel moving forward in this country that will help with the healing, with reconciliation among our peoples. And so in a nutshell, that was the ballet. And it played in Winnipeg. And a tremendous success-- sold out five nights in a row. Nationally, it got huge reviews, great reviews. And again, I was just one small-- this was a collaborative effort among many, many amazing people. And right away, they said, we should put on a national tour.
  • A reconciliation, through the process of creation, and reconciliation as an aim for the project-- and I think that was not always easy because there are some very difficult parts of the ballet. But I think that that's an important part of the story.
  • I'm very excited to see the ballet. We watched some of the dancers warming up today. And we had the presentations today. So I'm pumped to see how the ballet comes together with Truth and Reconciliation, with Indian Residential Schools. And pumped up, yes.
  • I read the story on the way here, on the airplane. And it was a mixture of emotions for me. And I'm really looking forward to seeing the ballet that's going to speak the truth and that we've walked through this darkness together, my sister and I. And it was a mess. It was a mess that was brought on by the government. But now it's a message to the world that there's a message of hope, and healing, and restoring our lives. So I'm very emotional today.
  • There are certain things I came away with out of that residential school-- positive things. I'm a good housekeeper because we were expected to stay clean. I feel I'm a good mother. But it's not because of residential school, because it's what I chose to be. I wanted my children and grandchildren to know love. Because I didn't know that in residential school.
  • My grandparents taught me a lot of love. They hugged me. They told me they loved me. My parents didn't know how to do that, because they both grew up in residential school also. And it wasn't until I was older in life that I was able to hug my parents and truly tell them that I love them. And it took them a while to tell me that they loved me too.
  • I think hope is the biggest thing that we can bring to the audience through this ballet. And that's something that's universal. It's not just-- and this story, it hasn't just happened in Canada. It's happened all over the world in different forms, different stories. But there are still-- it involves people who suffered, and who are discriminated, and unfairly treated.
  • I think it's really important that people who live here-- or not only live here, but people who live in the world-- knowing what happened in Canada, actually help people understanding what they went through. And hopefully, it goes to somewhere positive in their future.
  • Well, for me, the best gift, anyway, is to have had the honor of doing this work. It's about moving people, ultimately. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is always known not simply impress with technique, but to touch people and to move people. And that's the best gift I can receive, is to see the commitment that everybody has given to this work. And as Marie said, this is just the beginning. We spoke about this last night, that this work will continue for many, many years. So I just want to say, thank you to giving us the opportunity to do this, to allowing the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to touch on such a profound subject, to bring darkness into lightness. Thank you. Thank you, very much.
  • Joseph.
  • Yeah?
  • I'd like to present a gift to you from Long Plain First Nation. We had one of our band members-- her name is Joanna Smoke. I had her make this for you.
  • Wow.
  • So, on behalf of Long Plain First Nation--
  • Wow.
  • --I'd like to present that to you.
  • That's beautiful.
  • Thank you, so much.
  • Yes, [NON-ENGLISH].
  • Ah, [NON-ENGLISH].
  • These were handmade by Lisa [? Sunaboin, ?] one of our band members from Long Plain First Nation. And when I spoke to Kim, when she invited us to come to the ballet out here, she told me about the turtle being a significant part of the ballet. We had these slippers made specially for the two principle dancers.
  • Here's your moccasins.
  • So nice.
  • I just want to thank you for all the work you've done about this, the sweat you've put into the ballet, and bringing out the truth. And for me, it's also a great honor. Because my experience in residential school is going to be coming out in the ballet. But once the truth is out is when the reconciliation can start. I'm very happy that the dancers were able to take part in sweat lodges and participate in the indigenous cultural teachings and that you opened up your minds. I'm really, truly grateful for that. Yes.
  • Thank you.
  • Thank you.
  • In the end, I feel that we told a story about Canada. And we're doing something together to recognize that we're all part of this history and that we all have to work together to move forward. Reconciliation is real. And it can be real. And it can be true.

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