Doc examines residential schools

By Ryan Pike

To the average Canadian, the federal government has done some pretty inconvenient things, the most commonly complained about being the GST and the National Energy Program. These pale in comparison to the downright awful things the government has done in the past, like placing Japanese-Canadians in internment camps during the Second World War and using Chinese labourers to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. Frontrunners (Niigaanibatowaad, in Ojibway) details another horrible chapter in Canada’s past–residential schools.

By the 1850s, the United Province of Canada had been around for about a decade. Disappointingly, the First Nations peoples of the country had not quite acclimated themselves to confederation as well as officials had hoped. In an effort to make the country more harmonious and unified, the then-provincial government passed the Gradual Civilization Act, aiming to assimilate native peoples by educating them into English-speaking, Christian Canadians. Due to a law later passed in 1920, all First Nations children in the country aged seven to 15 had to leave their families and live in fortified compounds where they were forbidden to speak their native language or practice their native religion.

The initiative did not go well. The residential schools were not dissimilar from actual prisons and subsequent government reports have revealed rampant physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and deaths within the schools. One way for students to avoid these pitfalls was to participate on a running team. Frontrunners tells the tale of Thomas, a runner on one of these school teams who eventually participated in the torch relay at the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg. The film uses the 1999 return of the Pan Am Games to Winnipeg to frame the story and reflect on the atrocities of the schools.

Originally a play written by then-University of Calgary writer-in-residence Laura Robinson in 2001, Frontrunners is adapted in a straightforward manner, effectively filming the play. The approach is novel, presenting the story in a manner different from most films, but lacks visual dynamism. The acting is strong: Ron Desmoulins plays Thomas in flashback and present day, presumably because the scenes take place in his memory. He’s given the most to do and does it well, exhibiting considerable dramatic range. Derek George plays Michael, Thomas’ roommate in residential school and is used well.

The effectiveness of the film is limited by the fact the majority of the scenes are dramatizations. No doubt many of the events, possibly all of them, in the film occurred. Showcasing them in a documentary setting would’ve been a more effective indictment of the residential school system, but the approach used by director Lori Lewis still works. The length of the film leaves something to be desired, as the 50-minute presentation lacks significant presence and makes a single statement before ending.

The last residential school closed in 1998 and the federal government issued an apology to all of those who had been mistreated over the duration of the program. Frontrunners is a reminder that sometimes an apology can’t heal old wounds.

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