WILLIAM tells the story of a twelve-year-old torn from his family in 1960 and placed in one of 139 Indian residential schools that existed in Canada over a period of a hundred years, from 1883 to 1996. These residential schools had a single purpose: to educate Indigenous youth in Canada in order to assimilate them.
Each episode highlights one typical scene in the children’s journey through the system, from their life on reserve to their abduction by government agents, their arrival at the school, their experience in the classroom and dormitory, and their eventual return home.
Most Canadians today know at least one horrific story about the residential schools. Very few of us haven’t listened to an upsetting testimony or seen a disturbing and heartbreaking image. But in this media-saturated world where a new calamity demands our attention every day, it can be hard to get out of ourselves and feel the empathy that naturally arises when we encounter real suffering other people. WILLIAM wants to meet this challenge by allowing the viewer to experience a historical reality that, until now, could only conveyed in news broadcasts or government reports.
WILLIAM is a virtual reality (VR) web series that sheds light on a part of our history that was long consigned to silence and deliberate ignorance.
For many decades, thousands of Indigenous youth were placed, often by force, in residential schools where they were taught the language, religion, and way of life of their colonizers. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report (2015), the residential school system was the key component of a national policy of assimilation in Canada, a policy that can be characterized as “cultural genocide.”
The six episodes of WILLIAM allow the user to live this dark chapter of our history in the first person. Anyone can now embody one victim of this assimilation policy that affected some 150,000 individuals in Canada.
The realities brought to life in the various episodes can be experienced independently, or in sequential order to form a single dramatic experience.
This project 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 designing the six episodes that comprise this series.
The scenarios are based on the testimonies of former residents. 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 its community.
This project is part of a movement trying to raise awareness and repair the harm done to Canada's Indigenous community. It is doing this by putting the power of cinema and virtual reality in the service of education and awareness.
The power of docudramas lies in their ability to go beyond the transmission of dry facts. By embodying a character and living their story, the viewer can participate in an act that raises empathy and the desire to understand the experience of others.
WILLIAM was firstly conceived for a Canadian francophone and anglophone audience. But since Canada’s colonial legacy is just one instance of a global phenomenon, 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 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, WILLIAM has an important educational component. It is a powerful pedagogical tool that we invite teachers from every province and territory in Canada to use when they discuss the residential school system in the classroom.
The origins of 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 lips 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’s inability to integrate Indigenous peoples was a real problem for those seeking to recreate European civilization in the New World. What was do be done with all these Indigenous nations that had no place in the new society? How should the colony deal with this population that refuses to disappear, as their fate would have it?
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. (1)
First Nation people—then unscrupulously called “savages”—were already confined to reserves at this time. By allowing Indigenous children to be raised by their parents, the reserves helped perpetuate 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. That is the conclusion Macdonald had arrived at.
The “industrial schools” that came into being in the 1880s were the first manifestation of the modern residential school system. In 1930, 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.
Until the 1950s, residential schools imposed a fixed schedule on their student population. The first half of the day was devoted to lessons in the classroom, and the second half was devoted to work—mainly agricultural work. Given that the Canadian population at the time mainly consisted of farmers, the colonizers felt it important to teach agriculture to these students and thus encourage them to abandon a hunter-gatherer culture in favour of a more sedentary existence.
Finally, use of Indigenous languages was forbidden in residential schools because language was perceived as a vehicle for the transmission of the culture that needed to be eliminated.
Since the stated purpose of residential schools was to turn “savages” into modern citizens, violence and humiliation quickly and inevitably became a preferred means for enforcing the children’s assimilation and education. After all, these children were not perceived as full human beings in their own right. Even in cases where the governing principles of the system were applied with tolerance (and even if one argued that some educators had noble intentions), the goal of the project remained intrinsically violent. That goal was to uproot the child before they could integrate into their community and master their culture. It was to make the child believe that their mother tongue was shameful and useless. In short, it was to convince them that everything they had learned from their parents deserved to be forgotten.
All in all, the residential school system was part of a general policy that sought to eradicate Indigenous culture in Canada. It is in the context of that policy, and the prejudices it embodied, that school staff committed the acts of physical, psychological and sexual violence that thousands of former residents reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As succinctly summarized in the Commission's final report, "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.” (2) The specific abuses that residents had to endure can therefore be perceived as effects of a deeper act of aggression that characterized the collective thinking of an entire era towards a whole civilization.
Although the number of residential schools reached its apogee in the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1996 that the last residential school in Canada shut its doors.