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Batchewana residential school survivor subject of new CBC doc

Anishinaabe storyteller Sarain Fox came to Batchewana First Nation territory during the COVID-19 pandemic to tell the story of 'auntie' Mary Hill-Bell, who spent nearly a decade in Spanish Indian Residential Schools
Anishinaabe storyteller and activist Sarain Fox, left, walks with her 'auntie', Mary Hill-Bell, during the making of Inendi, a 44-minute documentary about Hill-Bell's residential school experience. The documentary was filmed in and around Batchewana First Nation territory this past June. Land Back Studios Inc.

The way Anishinaabe artist and activist Sarain Fox sees it, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to take the lives of elders and knowledge-keepers throughout Indigenous communities. 

That was the catalyst for Inendi, a new CBC-funded documentary which sees Fox travel to Batchewana First Nation territory in order to document the story of her auntie, Mary Hill-Bell, who spent nearly a decade in the Spanish Indian Residential Schools which operated between 1913 and 1965 in Spanish, Ont. 

Inendi is an Anishinaabemowin term meaning 'she is absent' or 'she is missing.' 

“There was this sort of no-excuse attitude, because everything had stopped. I travel almost full-time in my previous work, and I was on the road all the time,” said Fox, a Batchewana First Nation band member who is from Barrie, Ont. “So it felt like I was being handed this incredible gift to have this moment in time to just take it in, tell her story and to do something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time.”

“But it was even more urgent right now.”

The 44-minute documentary was filmed in and around Batchewana First Nation territory over a two-week period in mid-June. Fox says she always made sure that Hill-Bell was aware that she was in control of her own story. 

“There’s an incredible responsibility when somebody does offer you their story like that. It was a humbling experience to have her trust me in that way,” Fox said. 

'It took me 20 years to come out with that'

Mary Hill-Bell attended residential school in Spanish for about eight years beginning in the mid-1940s. 

She wanted to share her story because she’s getting older, and she feels as though her stories are being passed down when sharing them with Fox and her family. 

It’s good to do “just in case” she dies, she says, and telling her story took on more urgency because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It brought back a lot of memories. Sad memories, because my family’s no longer here - they’re all passed on,” Hill-Bell told SooToday. “It took me 20 years to come out with that.”

It’s a story rife with abuse and neglect, a story that saw Hill-Bell and others reduced to nothing more than industrial workers, labourers, while being stripped of their language and culture at the schools in Spanish. 

“They taught you nothing about life - you know, how to live, how to buy. Nothing like that,” she said. “They didn’t teach you the skills that you needed in life.”

Hill-Bell tells SooToday that she’s been approached by Batchewana First Nation Chief Dean Sayers about doing some speaking engagements in the future. But even talking about her experience can be challenging.

“People don’t realize when you bring up things like that, it can really, really bring up those memories. And they were bad and sad memories,” she said. “I don’t have that support around me, to help me and give me that strength that I need in order to put it out there.” 

“The only ones I have around me are just Sarain, Sarain’s family, my little wee grandchildren.”

But Hill-Bell isn’t ruling out the possibility of speaking to people - especially the younger generations - in order to help them overcome drug issues and other societal problems brought on through intergenerational trauma caused by the residential school system.  

“I just feel so sorry for the younger generation, because I know where it’s coming from,” she said. 

'I really hope that people realize that residential school is not something that just happened to Canada'

Fox says her directorial debut is a way of letting Indigenous people tell their own stories, in their own words.     

“I think the most important stories need to come from survivors. They need to come from people who experienced it,” said Fox. “I really hope that people realize that residential school is not something that just happened to Canada - our residential schools were policies that were designed to eliminate the indian problem, which was Indigenous identity, and Indigenous excellence, and Indigenous influence.”

“I want people - the world, perhaps - to see us for who we are, and to see us in our own words. When you see auntie Mary talk about her trauma, the next thing that you see is her laughing and comforting, and being spunky and full of fire,” she continued. “I think that’s so important for me, for people to see us speaking for ourselves.”

Inendi is now available to stream on CBC digital platforms.