Skip to content

Sugarcane documentary wins directing award at Sundance premiere

‘Any award the film receives is a testament to the power of the people that told their stories’: directors
An historical photograph of St. Joseph’s Mission and Industrial School in the Cariboo. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin)

A new documentary about the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School won a directing award at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January, where it had its premiere.

Sugarcane, the film, follows the Williams Lake First Nation’s investigation into the abuse and disappearance of children at St. Joseph’s.

Co-directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie said they are grateful the film is getting the platform it deserves.

“Any award the film receives is a testament to the power of the people that told their stories,” Kassie told Black Press Media during a joint interview with NoiseCat over Zoom.

When making the film, Kassie said they knew they needed to connect with real people living the consequences of residential schools in the present, and they wanted to film as things were unfolding when there was an urgency and energy to find the truth through the investigation.

She first became interested in the residential schools’ legacy after the announcement in June 2021 of the potential 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Kassie, an investigative journalist and filmmaker, said she had covered human rights abuses and told stories of people caught in the crossfires of geopolitical conflicts all over the world but had never done anything on her own country.

“I’d never turned my lens on Canada and the atrocities it committed on its First Peoples,” she said. “When Kamloops broke its story I decided that is where I needed to be and this was the story I needed to tell.”

The first thing she did was reach out to NoiseCat, who is also a writer and a journalist, and a member of Canim Lake Band Tsq̓éscen̓, east of 100 Mile House.

They worked their first reporting jobs together almost a decade ago and had been trying to work together ever since.

“He’s an incredible writer and thinker and historian of the region and I felt it would be an amazing collaboration,” Kassie said.

After reaching out to NoiseCat, she went looking for a First Nation, planning to do a search for unmarked graves, but had not started.

That’s when she found an article in the Williams Lake Tribune about Chief Willie Sellars and the Williams Lake First Nation and how they were going to search St. Joseph’s Mission.

She penned a long letter to Chief Sellars and he called her back.

“He told me, ‘The Creator has always had good timing because the day before our council said we needed someone to document the search.’”

NoiseCat told Kassie he had to think about it before he said yes.

First, he’d just signed a book contract, and it would be his first time writing a book; secondly, he’d never made a film before.

Underlying those two reasons was a bigger factor.

“I was hesitant because I knew my family had a very painful connection to residential schools and I did not know what that story was specifically, but I knew there were stories there.”

Kassie meanwhile went ahead, visited WLFN council in person and committed to the project.

A few weeks later, NoiseCat let her know he was on board, and that is when she told him she was documenting the investigation into St. Joseph’s.

“I told her, ‘That’s really crazy. Did you know that is the school where my family was sent?’” NoiseCat said. “Out of 139 schools across Canada, Em had chosen to follow the one school that my family was taken away to. What are the odds of that?”

From there the two felt the project was fated and meant to be.

Then, a year into the filming NoiseCat moved to the other side of the camera.

His father Ed NoiseCat’s story of being born at the residential school became part of the film, as did the healing journey between the father and son.

The film also explores the life of the late Rick Gilbert, former WLFN chief and councillor, who died in October 2023, and his wife Anna Gilbert.

Gilbert was abused at St. Joseph’s, yet he remained a Catholic his entire life. Gilbert was one of the First Nations leaders invited to the audience with Pope Francis in April 2022.

Kassie and NoiseCat travelled to film Gilbert in Rome, including a visit he made to the Oblate House at the Vatican where he met with the bishop.

During that visit, Gilbert told the bishop about the abuses he suffered at St. Joseph’s.

The two men had a deep conversation, with the bishop telling him, “I am so sorry,” and “Your forgiveness one day is what we will need to be healed.”

Responding, Gilbert said in the Bible it says being sorry for something is the very first step, but then the person apologizing has to take action.

“There have been apologies, but nothing has happened,” he told the bishop.

Before they said goodbye, they held each other’s hand, and Gilbert told the bishop he had faith and trust in him.

Sitting in another room listening to the conversation, NoiseCat said it was the bravest thing he had ever seen anyone do.

Charlene Belleau, former Esk’etemc Chief, is also featured in the film.

For decades Belleau has led the charge, demanding answers about what happened at St. Joseph’s.

She heads the investigation team along with Whitney Spearing, an archaeologist and manager of title and rights for WLFN.

Throughout the film the viewer is privy to various aspects of their investigation.

At one point Belleau and Spearing are inside a big barn that still stands at the St. Joseph’s Mission site today where they are viewing various messages scratched into the boards and rafters from former students.

In other scenes they are interviewing survivors who share horrific memories, are at the Williams Lake Tribune poring over old newspapers or researching at the BC Archives.

Sellars appears throughout the film at various intervals, sharing not only the burden of the residential school legacy but the modern day racism voiced by some non-Indigenous people.

Sitting at his computer he reads out loud some of the emails he received after the news about the St. Joseph’s Mission investigation.

They are full of hate-filled comments, such as it being a money grab or how terrible the First Nations people were for letting their children go to residential school in the first place.

Not wanting to be all doom and gloom, the film celebrates the resiliency of Indigenous people and the things they celebrate, such as rodeos, powwows, dip net fishing, elders dances, sweat lodges and the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation celebrated in 2021.

“What’s remarkable about the film is the fact people were fighting for truth and accountability, but also reclaiming a way of life that was taken away. We wanted to celebrate that,” Kassie said.

There is still reverence for the Catholic Church as much as there is trauma, rage and animosity towards it, she added.

“It is a complicated and nuanced place filled with beautiful people who are incredibly resilient. Those contradictions and contours are what makes the story so special and so important.”

NoiseCat said they followed the story as it unfolded, which pulled in other characters whose stories unfortunately did not make it into the film, but there is one storyline they hope to make into a short later this year.

“I really was inspired, as we all were, by Charlene and Rick. Their dignity, their power and their bravery is incredible.”

“The real reckoning and forgiveness, was one of self and one within their own families and their own communities, because what the schools and institutions that ran the residential schools intended to do was break down the family system in Indigenous communities so they could take the land and assimilate them into white culture,” Kassie said. “As we quote in the opening of the film, ‘get rid of the Indian problem.’”

NoiseCat praised Kassie for her “incredible story instincts,” and said when he arrived to collaborate he felt she had chosen the right people to follow to tell the collective story.

“It’s also a really special collaboration between someone who is an insider and someone who is an outsider. Someone who is Canadian and grew up in white Canadian society and someone whose community is on a reservation and has a history at residential schools,” Kassie said.

READ MORE: St. Joseph’s Mission investigation film premieres at Sundance Film Festival

READ MORE: WLFN establishes email to share information regarding former St. Joseph’s Mission investigation

Don’t miss out on reading the latest local, provincial and national news offered at the Williams Lake Tribune. Sign up for our free newsletter here.

Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
Read more