Many countries have dark histories about how they have treated their indigenous people. Canada is no exception. While it has fewer movies about what has happened, it is never too late to shed some light on human rights atrocities. What happened is that many of Canada’s First Nations people were taken from their families and put into abusive situations at Catholic boarding schools all around the country. Indian Horse (2018) is about a boy named Saul Indian Horse who is taken from his Ojibway people and placed into a hellish residential boarding school in Ontario. It’s directed by Stephen Campanelli, who has done camera work for Clint Eastwood for years, and due to the strength of his message has gotten Eastwood on board as an executive producer.
The story unfolds through Saul’s life stages. The Catholic boarding school is not a safe environment. Many Natives would be abused and molested for transgressions as insignificant as speaking their native tongue. It hurts to watch and understand the real suffering that happened there. Saul has a tough time adapting but finds an unlikely salvation in hockey. He is not allowed to play with the older boys who travel and face other teams but is committed to being a part of the team. He maintains the ice until one day he sneaks out with some skates and teaches himself to play.
Saul quickly progresses with hockey. It is not very long until he is the best skater at the boarding school and when another player takes an injury, he’s given the opportunity to be slotted on the team. He finds a natural rhythm inherent in hockey, an expression of his otherness refined into breaking down barriers. It’s a true story and a good story about a boy who overcomes limitations and comes away with great personal successes.
It’s not long until his success on the ice is noticed, as he leverages his skill to bring together the team. He quickly becomes a star player. Soon he is sought after to go into an Ontario semi-pro team and then elevated into the pros. Saul’s most convincing actor is the young Sladen Peltier, who portrays his finest hockey moments while Forrest Gooluck and Ajuawak Kapashesit portray his teenage and early adult years, respectively. It’s perhaps my least favorite thing with multi-staged slice of life movies, that they do not do a perfect job of presenting the same person.
Even with hockey, Saul inevitably finds pushback. He’s still given abuse, an outsider in a white man’s game. It seems he may never escape the persecution he found at the boarding school. Even his escape becomes defined by what happened there. We see how hard it would be to get out of a systemically racist and broken system that’s designed to hold you down.
As a highlight of Canada’s broader Truth & Reconciliation program, Indian Horse does a good job showing us an overlooked fragment of its history. The same way Wind River (2016) has reminded us of the tremendous and unrecorded losses of Natives in the United States, Indian Horse gives a Canadian version of similar injustice. Perhaps it is a stepping stone toward making things right. Short of anything else, it is a high quality account that deserves further attention.