Indian Horse provides new narrative for Canada Day

Bringing Canada’s tragic history and sheltered truths to popular cinematic landscape 

A still from Indian Horse.
Screenshot from Netflix

The current political and social climate in Canada has been dominated by increasing efforts to reconcile with the tragic history suffered by Indigenous peoples—a history which was portrayed with effectiveness and intensity in Canadian director Stephen Campanelli’s newest film, Indian Horse.

Based on the award-winning novel by the late Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse is an unapologetically graphic account of the very real history of the experiences of Indigenous peoples in residential schools. It is told within the context of the fictional life of one character, Saul Indian Horse. 

After being abducted to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, Saul discovers a love for hockey while witnessing firsthand the racist, abusive and aggressive treatment against Indigenous students. 

When addressing the different forms of abuse fellow students at St. Jerome’s endure, Campanelli doesn’t shy away from causing viewers to look away in horror or discomfort—mirroring Wagamese’s style in the original novel. 

As a viewer in a near-empty theatre in the middle of a weekday, I was able to both experience the film and see its impact on an audience. 

My friend—whose tension I felt building beside me—covered her eyes as students in the film were forcefully fed soap, locked in small metal cages in a dingy basement, and committed suicide over the graves of their only friends. 

A scene revealing the extent students were sexually abused spurred those around me to express their discomfort, cursing and at times pleading to the screen, “No, oh God no.” 

For someone who’s against talking and whispering during films, the audience’s reaction was entirely foreign to me, and it served as a testament to the power of the film.

An important facet to Indian Horse is in its connection to the narrative surrounding the Indigenous experience in Canada, from the Confederation in 1867 to 1996—when Canada closed its last residential school—and all the way to today. 

For instance, it speaks to how residential schools fashioned their curriculums around Christianity. Students spent more time maintaining their underfunded residence with physical labour and memorizing the Lord’s Prayer than they did learning meaningful life skills. 

When Saul suddenly leaves St. Jerome’s after being recruited to his first hockey team, the Moose, he ventures to communities throughout Ontario and is exposed to the blatant racism some Canadians harbor. His experiences eventually push him away from his love of the sport, and any possibility of a future professional career. 

From a physical altercation in a bar to another on the ice, Saul realizes the extent of the racial divide in Canada. His experience as a child begins to take a toll on him, and he continuously becomes more vulnerable without hockey—turning to alcohol, losing a place to sleep, and living an empty existence. 

Saul eventually begins to heal, but only after the leader of a substance-abuse counselling group lends him advice. The leader told him to simply cry. 

For viewers, Saul’s acceptance regarding the tragic experiences of his people ties in the importance of Canada’s continuing dialogue and efforts to reconcile a tainted past. For Canadians, the film highlights why it’s imperative for citizens to understand the history of their country and encourage further efforts towards reconciliation. 

Wagamese put words to experiences that have proved difficult for many to vocalize; Campanelli brought to life an adaption that reaches further than any classroom documentary ever could. 

Indian Horse is impactful, a necessary experience and, most importantly, brings thousands of marginalized true stories to life.   

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