About this project

WILLIAM tells the story of a nine-year-old torn from his family in 1960 and placed by force in one of 139 Indian residential schools that existed in Canada over a period of a hundred years, from 1870 to 1997. These residential schools had a single purpose: to assimilate First Nations, Inuit and Metis into Canada’s colonial society.

Each episode highlights one typical scene in the children’s journey through the system, from their life on the land to their abduction by government agents, their arrival at the school, their experience in the dormitory, the classroom, and their return home.

Fiction at the service of history

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Today, most Canadians have at least heard one moving story or seen one touching image related to residential schools. Yet this part of our collective history is barely addressed in school curriculum, and according to a 2021 survey (1), many people admit to knowing very little about Indian residential schools, except for what they read or hear in the media. In a world saturated with information, in a world where it seems like every day there is a new calamity, it is difficult to get out of oneself to feel the empathy that is required when one encounters real suffering. WILLIAM wants to take on the challenge of creating empathy, by allowing everyone to experience this historic reality in the first person.

This series renders reality in its most intimate form by means of a fictional work grounded in historical fact. In its development, WILLIAM benefited from the same rigor that goes into making any truthful documentary. Much research went into developing and designing the six episodes.

The scenarios are based on the testimonies of residential school survivors. Scenes were selected to capture the archetypal moments that every child who went through the residential school system had to live out. The experience of WILLIAM and his peers is the experience of thousands. By living it, we bear witnesses to a tragedy that was repeated each time the government abducted a child from their family or their community.

This project is part of a movement trying to raise awareness and repair the harm done to Canada’s Indigenous communities. It is doing this by putting the power of cinema and virtual reality in the service of education and awareness.

By embodying a character and living their story, the user actively participates in a movement that amplifies empathy and the desire to understand the experience of others.

(1) Canadians React To The Discovery Of Remains At Residential School

Target demographics

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WILLIAM was firstly conceived for a Canadian anglophone and francophone audience. But since Canada’s colonial legacy is just one instance of the global issue of colonization, the series is part of a worldwide effort to recognize the experience of Indigenous peoples around the world. It is therefore intended for the widest possible audience.

Since the content is based on the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report, WILLIAM has an important educational component. It is a powerful pedagogical tool that we invite teachers to use when they talk about the residential school system in the classroom.

What is the Indian residential school system ?

The information presented in this section may be offensive to some readers.

The origins of Indian residential schools go back to the nineteenth century, an era of massive colonial expansion in Canada. During that time, the “Indian Question” was on the minds of every political leader in the fledgling country.

Here, as in the United States, the population originating from Europe was rapidly increasing, and the doctrine according to which Indigenous peoples belonged to a bygone era was simply taken for granted. The colonizers inability to integrate Indigenous peoples was a real problem for those seeking to recreate European civilization in the New World.

In 1883, sixteen years after Confederation, the Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, offered a « solution » in the House of Commons:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. (2)

First Nation people—then unscrupulously called “savages”—were already confined to reserves. By allowing Indigenous children to be raised by their parents, the reserves helped maintain their culture, and this posed a problem for the “civilizing progress” that Macdonald and his colleagues envisioned for their young country. In their minds, the philosophy that one must “kill the Indian in the child” was an obvious moral truth. If Indigenous people were going to integrate with the European majority and participate in the colonizing project, it was necessary to separate the children from their parents. It was necessary to destroy the family system that ensured the transmission of Indigenous cultures.

For over a century, the central objectives of Canadian Indian policy were to eliminate Indigenous governments, ignore Indigenous rights, end treaties and, through a process of assimilation, ensure that Indigenous peoples ceased to exist as legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which could be described as “cultural genocide”. (3)

(2) Quoted in Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 2-3

(3) Quoted in Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 1

Overview of the System

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More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forced to attend one of the 139 church-run, government-funded schools between 1870 and 1997.

The “industrial schools” that came into being in the 1870s were the first manifestation of the modern residential school system. In 1930, at the height of the system, there were 80 establishments in Canada. Although the government administered residential schools, the task of managing them and educating the children was entrusted to religious institutions: the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the United Church, and the Presbyterian Church. Like schooling and cultural assimilation, evangelization was seen as a key component of transforming residents into citizens worthy of being part of the majority.

Since the explicit purpose of the schools was to transform “savages” into “modern citizens”, violence and humiliation quickly and inevitably became the preferred means of getting the messages across to the children. Even in cases where the governing principles of the system were tolerantly applied (and even if one could argue that the intentions of some were good), the goal and project remained inherently violent. It was about uprooting the child before he could put down roots in his community and master their culture. It was about making them believe that their mother tongue was shameful and useless. In short, it was about convincing them that everything they had learned from their parents was worth forgetting.

For the children, life in these schools was lonely and foreign. When they arrived at the residential school, brothers and sisters were separated. The buildings were poorly located, poorly constructed and poorly maintained. Many schools were poorly heated and ventilated. Food was meager and of poor quality. Discipline was severe and daily life was extremely regimented. Native languages and cultures were denigrated and repressed. The educational objectives of the schools were limited and confusing and usually reflected a lack of respect for the intellectual capacities of Indigenous peoples. For students, education and technical training too often gave way to the labor required to make schools self-sufficient. Neglect of children was institutionalized, and lack of supervision created situations where the safety and even the lives of students were at risk. The residential school system was part of an overall policy that sought the extinction of all Indigenous culture in Canada, and it was within this policy and the prejudices it embodied that the physical, psychological and sexual abuse that thousands of Indigenous people reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between 2008 and 2015 occurred.

According to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015, at least 6,000 children died in these facilities. Today, we know that the number is likely higher. A child had a 1 in 25 chance of dying at residential school.

“The residential school system was based on an assumption that European civilization and Christian religions were superior to Aboriginal culture, which was seen as being savage and brutal.” (4)

(4) Quoted in Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, p. 5