Rev. Larry Lynn smiles next to residential school survivor Monique Sabourin and Steven Point, former lieutenant governor of British Columbia, after the world premiere of Lynn's documentary, In the Spirit of Reconciliation, in Vancouver Dec. 6. (Photo: B.C. Catholic/Agnieszka Krawczynski)
VANCOUVER (CNS) — Rev. Larry Lynn was wrapping up a visit to the Northwest Territories, interviewing Aboriginal survivors of residential schools about their experiences, when he thought to ask his tour guide about her life.
Reluctantly, Monique Sabourin agreed to be interviewed on-camera for the film being made by Lynn, a priest for the Archdiocese of Vancouver who was a cinematographer before entering the seminary. When the cameras started rolling, Sabourin spoke, unprompted, for 45 minutes and “told this story of paradise lost and paradise regained,” Lynn said at an early December premiere of his film In the Spirit of Reconciliation.
A member of the Dene Nation, Sabourin grew up in Fort Providence, on the banks of the Mackenzie River. Her father had gone through the residential school system but had never spoken about his experience. In the film, Sabourin said her father helped build the church in Fort Providence and covered any pain he felt with joy. He raised Sabourin in the Catholic faith and ensured she had a happy childhood.
When she was school-aged, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police removed Sabourin from her home because her parents had stopped sending her to school. She was sent to a residential school run by the Sisters of Charity of Montreal.
In Canada, 130 residential schools operated between the 19th century and 1996. An estimated 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed into residential schools during that time. The residential schools were funded by the government of Canada and run by various church groups, including the Catholic Church.
At the school, children were forbidden to speak any language other than English. Sabourin recalled being caught exchanging a few words in her native language with a cousin who was also at the school. She said both girls were pulled by their hair to the bathroom, where a nun washed their mouths out with soap.
Sabourin recalled that the next day, she was taken to the chapel and told she had to confess. “Confess what? I didn’t know how to sin at that time,” she said, sharing her story on camera.
Sabourin said she was one of many girls in her school who was sexually abused by a priest during her years as a student. According to Sabourin, when she and the other victims reported their abuse to the sisters, they were told to stop telling lies.
“They took my language, my love, my love for my people, my Jesus, my church,” Sabourin recalled. Later in life, she turned to alcohol to numb the pain caused by the sexual abuse she had endured.
Similarly, George Tuccaro, a former commissioner of the Northwest Territories, also struggled with alcohol abuse in the years after he left residential school.
He said at the age of 29, while in a “drunk tank,” he remembered one of the sisters at his school had told him he would never do anything with his life. Tuccaro decided he did not want to allow her prophecy to become reality.
On camera, Tuccaro said he began praying in that jail cell, asking God, “Can I give you back the remote control?”
His journey to recovery was not easy, but he eventually became a broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and was appointed Commissioner of the Northwest Territories in May 2010.
Like Tuccaro, Sabourin also reached a point when she decided it was time to break the power her residential school experience had over her.
Speaking as part of a panel after a Dec. 6 screening of In the Spirit of Reconciliation, Sabourin said, “It took 10 years of my life to realize where I was coming from.”
In 1992, Sabourin sought treatment for alcohol abuse and has been sober ever since. She attended a Pentecostal church, but did not feel “at home.” Finally, she said, “I went back to my church . . . I have a lot of obstacles, but I keep facing them.”
For her, part of the healing process meant “accepting who I am as a Dene” and returning to the practice of her Catholic faith. “I had to love myself first and ask the Creator to help me,” she said.
Sabourin had also participated in a three-part program, “Returning to Spirit.” The program was created by Aboriginal and church officials to help residential school survivors find a way to heal from their experiences, and to educate religious men and women about the effect residential schools had on students.
Sabourin developed and has received funding for a 12-step recovery program for Aboriginal people in her community. She said 15 people had already signed up for the program, “and I thank Jesus for that.”
Lynn said he had not planned to make a film about survivors of residential schools.
He had been working on a different project for Catholic Missions in Canada and had been scheduled to make one more trip to the Northwest Territories. Just weeks before that trip, in December 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — established to hear the stories of those affected by residential schools and promote dialogue and healing — issued its final report, which included 94 “calls to action.”
Several of those calls to action recommended creating opportunities for all Canadians to learn about the impact of residential schools on survivors.
The priest said he hoped “Catholics all over North America will see this film and will be able to have insight into what colonialism has done . . . I want Aboriginal people to see the film, to think about how they are healing, how they are moving forward, because there are many, many, ways of dealing with it, and what we hear in public media, there’s one story and that’s not the complete story.”