Bones of Crows Rémy Girard Karine Vanasse

Bones of Crows is an epic of Indigenous resilience

We spoke with Rémy Girard and Karine Vanasse about portraying residential school staff in Marie Clements’ new film, soon to be a miniseries.

The opening sequence of Marie Clements’s century-spanning Bones of Crows takes place decades before the film’s protagonist is born. Her ancestors were already displaced from their homes and placed on reserves, waiting for food. A grizzled, grimy man teases and mocks them before revealing that there is no food and they will likely starve. As the sequence ends with a gunshot to the head, the splattered blood turns into a murder of crows. 

Adopting a roving and non-linear storytelling method, Bones of Crows tells the story of Aline Spears (played by Grace Dove as an adult) from her peaceful, impoverished childhood in 1930s Manitoba. Though poor, the family wants for nothing and lives happily until the Church and Sheriff arrive to split their family apart. Aline and her siblings will be brought to live in residential schools. The film spans nearly a century, as we watch Aline endure and resist; she enlists in WW2 as a Cree code-talker, braves a difficult marriage with her traumatized husband, watches as her family falls apart and fights to make a better future for her children. A dark though hopeful story about intergenerational trauma and the enduring impact of colonialism, Bones of Crows is an epic in every sense of the word. 

Much of the film takes place within the residential schools. Aline, a talented pianist, has special privileges as Father Jacobs (Rémy Girard) believes her skills can be used as proof that the system works. Though it spares Aline from pain, it also builds resentment among some staff, notably Sister Ruth (Karine Vanasse), who resents Aline’s position within the school. Clements’s script makes sure to underline the humanity of these characters, despite the cruelty of their behaviour, but it’s never meant as a way to absolve them of their sins.

Girard and Vanasse were both present in Montreal to discuss their involvement in the film. “It all starts with Marie Clements and her script,” says Vanasse. “There was no desire to demonize these characters. It was about making them human. In making them human, we see the full scope of the horror. The nuns were also mistreated; they were abused. It was like they were in prison as well,” she explains. 

“I remember,” Vanasse explains, “arriving on the first day of shooting, that (Clements) says, no, no, no, you look too healthy. They were starving, too. She researched to bring it to life, even though we’re not carrying the film. But she did all the work for our scenes to ensure we were more than monsters. My character also lived a difficult life. It speaks volumes that Clements was also able to find compassion for them, despite the horrors they inflicted.”

Bones of Crows
Bones of Crows

Clements’s approach to these characters, humanizing them and rooting their actions in pain and righteousness, only underscores how one-sided reconciliation has been in Canada and abroad. As the film expands internationally, even bringing characters to the Vatican, we see time and time again as Indigenous peoples step up to defend themselves to extend compassion, with very little in return. Rather than wallow in suffering, though, without downplaying the horror endured, Clements underlines resilience and dignity. 

“For Father Jacobs, Marie (Clements) approached the character as a man who is sure to be right,” explains Girard. “If you accused him of hating the Indigenous people, he’d say, of course not — that he loves them, that’s why he wants them to find God, to pull them out of their misery.” As with most human behaviour, the Church was not acting to be evil but out of a misplaced and dehumanizing sense of righteousness. “I believe it was incomprehensible to the Europeans that the Indigenous people could live peacefully with nature. That was never the case with them, so they were sure they were right. That the children were better off with them than with their families and in their homes, even if they believed their actions were right, it didn’t stop them from sexually abusing those children either. There’s a dichotomy between what they believed and what they were doing.” 

The power of the Catholic Church was at the heart of a lot of the dangers. “When you’re raised, you have two choices,” says Girard, “become a believer or die.” Vanasse continues his thought, adding, “It means you’re not used to questioning yourself or your beliefs. At a certain point, you lose your humanity.” In the later part of the film, Sister Ruth commits an act of violence against the young Aline that is premeditated, rooted in jealousy and resentment. “You understand that the character tries to justify the behaviour, arguing that Aline is too proud,” says Vanasse, “but to admit she did something wrong would be devastating. She’s already given up so much for her beliefs.” 

“We talk a lot about reconciliation,” says Girard, “but what does it really mean? We must reconcile with people, reconstruct history and tell it as it is. But I hope the film also inspires a more personal kind of reconciliation, a desire from people to step up and do their part to reconcile.” 

Vanasse talks about the character Taylor Whallach (Gail Maurice plays her as an adult), Aline’s daughter who becomes a lawyer. “Her character really moved me,” says Vanasse. “To move on, hold that history, and do the work is beautiful. It also speaks to the social responsibility we all have to make things better. Sure, it’s good to have the government apologize and to have that history recognized, but it’s all our responsibility. There’s room for all of us to put in the work.” ■

Bones of Crows (directed by Marie Clements)

Bones of Crows opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 2.

This article was originally published in the June issue of Cult MTL.

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