Newsletter: Watching Indian Horse with residential school survivors

Canadian-made Indigenous movie made me think about how best to interview residential school survivors

I recently went to see the Vancouver premiere of the movie Indian Horse.

The theatre seats were sprinkled with residential school survivors, and it made me think more about the need for a cultural protocol to deepen understanding between media and First Nations.

Indian Horse is based on the book by the late Indigenous author Richard Wagamese. It’s the story of an Ojibwe boy who is separated from his family and forced into residential school, where he and other Indigenous students are abused by priests and nuns. The boy is a hockey prodigy and plays for stronger and stronger teams as he gets older, but he’s haunted by the damage done to him by residential school, and never fully realizes his potential.

Several of the residential school survivors in the audience said that watching the film brought back painful memories. I know other survivors who won’t even see this movie because they aren’t ready to confront their pain.

As I listened to them, I thought about the idea I proposed last month for a cultural protocol between media and First Nations, because journalists often interview survivors about their residential school experiences.

Though they may not mean to cause pain with their questions, journalists are nonetheless asking people in many of these interviews to recount trauma, which the survivor is then left to deal with after the journalist leaves.

Some best practices about interviewing residential school survivors — such as encouraging survivors to bring along a support person, and asking if they have access to counselling — could be woven into a media protocol. And not just for the sake of survivors. Journalists are vulnerable to vicarious trauma too, and should employ some self-care when they hear stories of great pain that people have endured.

In its final report released three years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed as part of a residential school settlement agreement, called for more reporting on this painful part of our history. But reporting on residential schools is still in its early stages. There are many layers to this story and many more interviews to be done. Considering best practices for responsible journalism can only help this effort.

If the positive reaction I received to my initial suggestion is any indication, there is some appetite for a media protocol. In a March 28 tweet, Duncan McCue, host of CBC’s Cross Country Checkup, supported the idea and said a protocol is long overdue. When I conclude my investigation into First Nations housing, I want to start laying the groundwork for a protocol. I want to gauge interest in it with a group of First Nations and a media outlet here in B.C., possibly on Vancouver Island where I’m from. My editors at The Discourse are intrigued by the idea and support exploring it further. I’ve talked to an official from one tribal group, as well as a small media outlet, and both are interested in advancing the conversation to learn more. It’s a start.

What do you want journalists to know before they interview residential school survivors? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me via Facebook, Twitter or email. Finally, if you enjoyed reading this newsletter, please ask your friends to subscribe.

First Nations housing jurisdiction

Earlier this week,The Discourse published my story about one group’s effort to take back jurisdiction over First Nations housing on reserve in B.C. from the federal government by 2019.

If they pull it off, B.C. First Nations will have their own say over their own housing for the first time in nearly 90 years.

Having jurisdiction is the key to solving a housing situation that has reached crisis levels in many instances, Sylvia Olsen writes in her PhD thesis.

Read my full story on what’s coming and why it matters here.


  • The Vancouver Parks Board recently directed its staff to examine the board’s colonial roots and present practices. Read chair Stewart Mackinnon’s presentation here.
  • The Anglican Church of Canada has created an online reconciliation toolbox here. The site has sections for children, practice exercises and videos to prompt  discussion.
  • The Edmonton Public Library has devoted specific space for reconciliation issues. Its website lists recommended readings, workshops and other resources.[end]


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