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Cambridge director's The Survivors a documentary of hope and healing

A screening of The Survivors will be held at 7 p.m. on Nov. 19 at Central Presbyterian Church in Cambridge

Out of a dark and painful past, how can residential school survivors forgive and find hope to pursue a meaningful life?

This is the question Cambridge director Stephanie Armstrong explores in her new documentary The Survivors.

A screening of the documentary will be held at 7 p.m. on Nov. 19 at Central Presbyterian Church in Cambridge.

The Survivors is a 35-minute documentary about 10 survivors from Mistissini, Quebec, who attended residential schools. They share the lessons from the past, and their journey to conquer trauma and find healing.

“They want to be seen not just as survivors, but as conquerors. For them, it is about hope and healing. They see others in their community still suffering and by sharing their own paths to healing, they hope they help heal others,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong and her husband Matt lived among the James Bay Cree for regular short-term periods over the past 12 years, building relationships and hearing stories within the community.

“I started going north more than a decade ago through Doulos Ministries. The founder commissioned me to do the project. At the time, I was working on another documentary about intergenerational healing as part of my master’s degree,” Armstrong said.

“Through connections I had made there, I gained trust over the years and filming began.”

Torn away from their families, forced to learn a foreign language, starved, mentally, emotionally, physically, and sexually abused, survivors share glimpses into their personal stories.

Some survivors were as young as five and six years-old when they first entered the residential school system.

“They wanted you to forget who you are, a Cree Indian. They wanted to erase that,” says Roderick Petawabano, from Mistissini who shares his story in The Survivors.

Petawabano revisits the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School in Brantford.

Never thinking he would step foot inside the building again, Petawabano searches for closure.

“I never thought I would walk in here again,” he says in the film.

Petawabano recounts the abuse he endured and witnessed at the school.

For many of the survivors, the feelings of loneliness and isolation from their families and communities were excruciating.

“Not being able to see my parents, not at Christmas and not even when someone from the family died,” Petawabano said.

The trauma still lingers as survivors struggle to find their sense of self.

For Petawabano, it was his faith and finding forgiveness that led him on his path to healing.

“I think making this documentary was a healing process for the survivors,” says Armstrong’s husband, Matt.

“They have overcome so much trauma and still have hope.”

Armstrong, a graduate of Ryerson's Documentary Media Master’s program says her film making method is described as “socially engaged art”.

“This is how I chose to pursue this film, to work with the subjects of the film. We had a Cree advisor. He went along with me when I did interviews. I wanted to make sure that I was doing things correctly and respectively,” Armstrong said.

“And it was viewed multiple times by the survivors to make sure that this was something they wanted to share. I believe for them that it has been a positive experience.”

Armstrong says the film is not about sharing a history lesson about residential schools as much as it is about sharing the lives of the survivors and their journey to healing and forgiveness.

“They have forgiven these people who have caused them so much trauma. They do not want to live with bitterness, and they do not want to live in the past. They want to live their lives,” Matt said.

Armstrong hopes to raise awareness about those who have not only survived but are healing from the effects of the residential school system.

“My hope is that people can keep these survivors in their minds and hearts and educate themselves and their children so that nothing like this will ever happen again,” Armstrong said.

According to Matt, the film is multi-dimensional.

“These people have overcome such trauma and through it all, have become better versions of themselves. Perhaps others will be able to see themselves through them,” Matt says.

Armstrong has made four documentary films and has a film credit for CBC to her name. She runs a local film company called Armstrong & Co. Films in Cambridge.

“We have not been able to travel to see our Cree friends because of COVID-19 and we have missed them,” Armstrong says.

“I am a youth pastor at Central Presbyterian Church which is where the screening will take place. I hope that this summer, I can bring my youth to Mistissini so that they too can create relationships,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong hopes to continue to work on more projects in Mistissini in the future.

“This was made possible because of the collaboration with so many people including my husband, Matt, Doulos Ministries, and my friends from the Cree Nation. I am so inspired by them,” Armstrong said.

The Survivors is a journey of hope, healing, and forgiveness.

“It is about making the conscious decision to forgive and move on,” Petawabano said.

“We were not created to exist, but to live.”

The screening of The Survivors will include a Q &A period with Armstrong and with the survivors in the film who will be available via Zoom.

COVID-19 protocols will be in effect.

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Barbara Latkowski

About the Author: Barbara Latkowski

Barbara graduated with a Masters degree in Journalism from Western University and has covered politics, arts and entertainment, health, education, sports, courts, social justice, and issues that matter to the community
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