Indian Horse And The Struggles Of Indigenous Children In Canada

This comparative essay will examine the differences and similarities in Saul’s life as portrayed in Richard Wagamese’s book entitled, “Indian Horse”, the 2017 movie written by Stephen.S Campanelli, and present-day life. Indian Horse is a very realistic and heart-wrenching story about the horrors of residential schools in Canada. Saul, a young Indigenous boy, who is ripped away from his family and forced to attend a residential school, is the protagonist in Indian Horse. Throughout the story, Saul struggles, first as a student and then as a survivor of Canada’s residential school system. We see through the novel and the movie, how Indigenous culture, residential schools, and sports played a part in Saul’s life, and they continue to play an important part in present-day life. Indigenous culture is the essence of who Indigenous people are, who they belong to, where they come from, and how they relate to each other.

In the novel, Wagamese says “Our people have rituals and ceremonies meant to bring us vision”. We see early in the novel, how Saul and his family, share stories and feel connected to one another. They have strong bonds with friends and others within their tribe. Similarly, in the movie, we see Saul and his family sitting around the campfire at Gods Lake, singing traditional songs. It’s dark outside and there are twinkling stars in the sky, the air is filled with joy and the family is happy, being together is what is important. Fortunately, now Canada also recognizes the importance and value of Indigenous culture and traditions. June 21st has been proclaimed as National Aboriginal Day, recognizing the cultures and contributions of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

The second issue we see in the Indian Horse story is the use of sports, specifically ice hockey. The residential school Saul attended had a hockey team, and once Saul was ready, he joined the hockey team. Generally, children play sports for two reasons. Firstly, sports bring children enjoyment and secondly, sports can be used as a great stress reliever. However, for Saul, hockey was more of a distraction. In the novel, Saul states, “I used the game to shelter myself from seeing the truth, from having to face it every day”. Saul was using hockey to protect himself from the horrific events of residential school life and the continual sexual assaults he received from Father Gaston. Playing hockey distracted Saul, and helped him deal with the pain of living in a residential school. In contrast, we see in the movie when Saul is playing for the Toronto Marlies, his teammates and players from the other hockey teams, make fun of him, and bodychecked him into the boards. Spectators threw Indian horse sculptures onto the ice and screamed racial slurs. Fortunately, this racial behaviour and discrimination is no longer tolerated and current day spectators would be forced to leave the sports arena. Many Indigenous children just like Saul, were torn from their families and forced to attend residential school, where they faced many tragedies and horrific events. In the novel, Saul retells the story of one of his friends “Shane Big Canoe. They brought him to St.Germ’s wrapped in ropes…We heard slaps and the wack of fits on flesh”. Indigenous children were wiped of their culture, language and traditional behaviours.

Similarly, in the movie, when children arrived at the school, they were brought into a dark blue room with bathtubs. Saul was forced to strip and put into a hot bath with other children, after which Nuns threw white powder all over their bodies. This symbolizes how the Nuns stripped them of their Indigenous culture and traditions, wanting them to assimilate and become white. Fortunately, all the residential schools in Canada are now closed. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister recognizes the importance and valuable contribution of Indigenous peoples and recently stated “Indigenous lives matter”. Canada changed how they treat Indigenous peoples. They are no longer forced to attend residential schools, and most universities in Canada have spots set aside for Indigenous students to ensure they receive the same education as other Canadians. Canada now recognizes the value of Indigenous culture, traditions and peoples.

In conclusion, the “Indian Horse” story brings to life all the horrific events that many Indigenous children like Saul faced being torn from their families and forced to attend residential schools in Canada. Indigenous culture, sports and residential school all played a very important role in Saul’s life. We see many similarities in how Indigenous children were treated in residential school, and the importance of Indigenous culture between Richard Wagamese’ novel, and the adapted 2017 movie by Dennis Foon. Differences were seen in Saul ‘s experience with hockey, and current day sporting activities, as well as how Canada currently treats the education of its Indigenous peoples.

14 May 2021
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