Children of God shows us the tragic realities of residential schools

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Children of God | Urban Ink, National Arts Centre, Raven Theatre | The Cultch’s York Theatre | May 17 – June 3, 2017

“We’re trying to make you better,” says a priest to a little boy, implying that everything he is — his culture, his language, and everything he does — is wrong. This is how children were treated in residential schools in Canada. They were abused in many ways and made to feel like there was something wrong with them. The trauma of that experience is intergenerational — it is passed on the children of residential school survivors and the effects linger to this day. Corey Payette’s Children of God demonstrates the realities of residential schools in gripping detail through rousing song and heart-wrenching drama. Everyone should see this play — even those who are already educated about this part of our history.

Tommy (Herbie Barnes) is one of three young boys we see growing up in a residential school, along with his older sister and two other girls. Showing how the experience affected him later in life, we are later shown scenes of him as an adult as he struggles with alcohol abuse and getting a job. While in school, he is not allowed to see his sister, Julia (Cheyenne Scott), but the two of them have a secret meeting spot where they manage to meet up every so often. In “The Closest Thing to Home” they sing about what they think they can remember from their home, but they aren’t sure what’s real anymore.  

One of the most heart-wrenching moments was hearing Tommy tell his sister that he watches the trains every day to see if their parents are on it, coming to take them home. In another scene, his mom does come to try to visit them, but she is told she can only see her children if she fills out a form which she can’t read. Tommy tries to write letters to his parents to tell them how much he hates it there and that he wants to go home, but those letters are never sent. Instead, the priest writes form letters on the board for the students to copy down and the only letters sent to parents talk about how wonderful their children are doing.

Every musical number is full of emotion and beautiful vocal harmonies while moving the plot along and adding to the intensity of the situation. In “God Only Knows,” both the students and the clergy lament their fate. Father Christopher (Michael Torontow) is a nasty man who is full of hypocrisy, whereas Sister Bernadette (Trish Lindstrom) has a bit more humanity. She eventually helps Tommy escape and attempts to stand up to Father Christopher a few times.

The children have their memories of home and their language beaten out of them—anything that hints at their indigeneity is seen as a sin. It’s no wonder that as an adult, Tommy is not stable. He has trouble getting along with his mother and struggles to forget the traumatic experiences of his youth.

Tommy’s sister never makes it home from residential school. She attempts to escape, but is always found and brought back to face harsh punishment. She eventually finds some sympathy from Sister Bernadette when she tells her, “He comes when I’m alone” and we learn what Father Christopher has been doing to her. The rape scene is subtle. We are left to imagine what happened, which is often worse than anything we would see on stage.

The entire cast, only two of whom are non-indigenous, gave outstanding performances — especially Julia and Tommy. Their roles must be especially draining. The lost innocence of these children is the huge tragedy, and the audience was invested in their story the whole way. In a telling scene, the boys played Cowboys and Indians, showing just how normalized those roles were.   

In the final scene, the cast held hands across the front of the stage, chanting to the steady drum beat in honour of Julia and all the children who suffered through residential schools. Soon everyone in the theatre was on their feet, holding hands with strangers, and thinking about this tragic piece of our past. It was a healing, cathartic, and powerful moment that I won’t soon forget.

 

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