Indian Horse Boldly Lays Bare Canada’s Dark Secret
The residential schools system will always be one of the most shameful blights on Canada’s history. An attempt at cultural genocide and assimilation that cost thousands of lives, it’s a dark part of our heritage that needs to be atoned for. One way to do this is through media, and it’s not something that’s ever been addressed on film, certainly not to the extent it is in Indian Horse.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Richard Wagamese, directed by Stephen S. Campanelli, and executive produced by Clint Eastwood, Indian Horse is a deeper, more brutal dive into the reality of the residential schools and the impact they left on those who survived, than many Canadians ever anticipated. Because of that, it’s an incredibly important movie, as well as an affecting story.
After losing his family at the age of six, Ojibwe Saul Indian Horse is forced into St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School in northern Ontario where he and many other First Nations children are physically and emotionally abused as they’re indoctrinated into Christian tradition at the expense of their own. Discovering a refuge in the form of a gift for hockey, Saul manages to do well on the school team until he’s able to leave as a teenager to pursue the sport elsewhere. However, the scars of St. Jerome’s stay with him; and they, alongside the racism prevalent in society, have a drastic impact on his life and career.
There’s no sugar-coating in this movie, which makes a number of scenes uncomfortable and aggravating. Saul’s parents were successfully assimilated, and as such gave him a Christian name to the disgust of his grandmother. But this meant he didn’t have to go through the torment of his classmate Lonnie, renamed Aaron by the headmaster priest, and beaten every time he speaks his native language. The cruelty by some of the nuns at St. Jerome’s at times rivals Nurse Ratched, particularly their behaviour towards two sisters. They reprimand children with a lashing if they miss even a minor word in the Lord’s Prayer, it’s pretty reprehensible. There’s a lot of misery in the film, even after Saul leaves the school, but it all feels justified both for the purposes of the story and Saul’s character journey, as well as educating audiences to the truth of what happened at these institutions.
Much like Moonlight, the film is divided into multiple periods in Saul’s life with three actors playing the lead character. And also like in Moonlight, they’re all terrific. Sladen Peltier is wonderful as the innocent kid thrust into a confusing and hostile world. As his are the scenes set at St. Jerome’s he arguably has the most weight, performance-wise, but he handles it really well. Even in his joyful times playing hockey, there’s still a lingering sadness. And in those sad and traumatic moments, he’s absolutely remarkable. Forrest Goodluck from The Revenant plays him as a teenager, integrating into his new Indigenous foster family on a reserve but still trying to move past his childhood experiences, something made difficult by his interactions with racism. Goodluck conveys both the relative freedom and the slow dissolution of his aspirations really well -a natural visual actor. And Ajuwak Kapashesit plays the adult Saul over a period of about a decade, who finds more success at hockey but at more of a price. This is the Saul who has to come to terms with his experiences, re-evaluate what he suffered through and witnessed, including some darkness he repressed, and in so doing endures quite a lot, both physically and psychologically. But Kapashesit really understands this conflict. The racism this Saul encounters a lot of the time is more socially ingrained. Even a newspaper article praising his prowess on the ice compares his defeating of a white team to scalping. He encounters a lot of those small offences that tie into his childhood trauma and inform the choices he makes. The supporting cast is very good too, most notably Michael Lawrenchuk as Saul’s foster father, Edna Manitowabi as his grandmother, and especially Michael Huisman as the only priest at St. Jerome’s to show him kindness and encourage his passion.
There’s some great visual directing to this movie too, like one harsh scene that’s edited against notes in a Christmas pageant, or another where toy Indians that obnoxious hecklers throw on the ice are envisioned with a completely different meaning for Saul. There are also a handful of moments where Saul’s expression is all that’s needed to infer his feelings on a reminder of his past or a particular discriminatory slight.
One of my favourite moments of this is a subtle one when Saul is first leaving the school and says goodbye to Lonnie, who responds in Ojibwe, only for the look on Saul’s face to show he’s now forgotten his own language after nine years of conditioned English. It’s a really powerful and affecting shot that conveys perfectly the tragedy of his situation, and by representation the tragedy of so many others who have gone through the residential schools. This specific story may be fictional, but Wagamese drew from a lot of real sources when he wrote his book, and the film (screenplay by Dennis Foon) feels just as genuine. It’s an indictment on a history of systematic abuse that can’t be ignored. There are way too many people like Saul in Canada.