Bones of Crows is not an easy film to watch but its creators feel there is healing to be found within the heaviness. Dene/Métis filmmaker Marie Clements’ epic story of one Cree woman’s life confronts hard truths in Canada’s dark history but is ultimately about Indigenous resistance and resilience.
Originally pitched to CBC as a miniseries, Clements jumped at the opportunity to create a feature that delved into the multi-generational impacts of residential schools. While the film is now playing in theatres, a five-part miniseries going deeper into the family’s history will begin September 20 on CBC and APTN.
“It was a great opportunity to look at how multi-generational survival and resilience has been embedded in our families,” Clements told the Nation. “Understanding our parents or grandparents were working hard to build a future while also dealing with memories that would reveal themselves.”
Bones of Crows covers a century of shared history from an Indigenous perspective. The story focuses on Aline Spears, who was forced from her large and happy family in 1930s Manitoba into residential school. Enduring abuse and heartbreak, she becomes a code talker in the Second World War and has a family of her own but is haunted by past trauma until she finally confronts her abusers.
While the characters occasionally feel overloaded with every imaginable burden encountered by Indigenous peoples, the film’s fluid flow across time pulls viewers to the bigger picture – our ancestors’ hardships are very much connected to daily lives. It stands as a testament to survivors’ stories and an unapologetic defiance of colonial oppression.
“It was extraordinarily challenging on every level, but we did not stop,” said Clements. “I think a lot of Indigenous filmmakers in this country feel they’ve been born to tell this story. I felt honoured to get this opportunity because it hasn’t always been there for us. For everyone who leaned into it, it was more than just another project – it meant everything.”
Black wings live in the mind’s eye of the central character, who sees the cloaks of Catholic priests and nuns descending upon her and her siblings like crows. Clements integrated memories of her mother and aunties into the script, feeling a responsibility to reclaim accounts she’d heard on a personal and community level.
Shooting began at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School shortly after 215 suspected unmarked graves were discovered on the site in 2021. While Clements braced for a last-minute relocation, she believes the community wanted the shoot to continue for “the truth to be seen and heard.”
“It was a profound experience to be shooting in the girls’ dorm and looking out the window at hundreds of people gathering for the memorial,” shared Clements. “When you’re working with a large Indigenous talent pool and crew, knowing that every single person on set has family that went to residential school, it’s a very different movie set.”
Secwépemc actress Grace Dove infuses the grown-up Aline’s devastating pain and resilience with warmth and beauty. At the film’s premiere during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Dove said she knew taking the role would mean sacrificing a piece of herself, knowing she “was not going to be the same person coming out.”
Among the film’s talented cast is a cameo from legendary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin when the Elder Aline testifies before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Taking the film to small communities has sparked meaningful discussions with audiences about a past that is only now coming to light.
“That was an amazing experience, seeing community members understand for the first time that this Elder has experiences they never felt able to talk about,” explained Clements. “A lot have been revealing their truths. It’s meant to open hearts and minds and create change, not to point fingers.”
Cree viewers may recognize the voice during the orchestral finale of Bones of Crows as Mistissini singer-songwriter Siibii, even though it’s conveyed through the film’s actress. Accompanied by the Victoria Symphony, Siibii summoned their powerful performance from a very personal place.
“I literally drew from this thought of how powerful it would be if my grandmother was in the audience listening to me,” said Siibii. “I love my gookum so much and unfortunately with her health she hasn’t been able to see any of my shows. That was the moment I got to live vicariously through this character.”
Watching the film with three generations of family was particularly emotional, as Siibii’s grandmother had hidden her daughter in the bush to protect her from residential school, where she had been taken at age four.
“I think my mom, little sister and great aunt could not only see ourselves in the movie but feel our gookum’s having lived through these heartbreaking moments,” Siibii suggested. “It’s not based on a real person’s story, but it captures so many Indigenous peoples’ experiences in Canada.”
The film’s agonizing depiction of children being removed from their family felt even more heart-wrenching because it’s a phenomenon still occurring to some extent today – Siibii’s nieces and nephews have been in and out of social services. Despite the challenging subject matter, Siibii feels this is the perfect time for these stories to be projected onto big screens.
“Not only for Indigenous folks to feel validated in their family’s stories but to be available to the larger Canadian society,” explained Siibii. “These stories can’t be erased from the history book. As Indigenous peoples we should be allowed to grieve as long as we need and make art about it.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter