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Acknowledging cultural genocide

By Will Sloan

Susan Enberg

Susan Enberg’s Erasing Cultural Genocide recounts survivor stories from St. Anne’s Residential School. Photo by Luke Galati.

Master of Documentary Media student Susan Enberg was researching Canada’s Indian Residential School System when she learned about St. Anne’s Residential School. It was at this Fort Albany, Ontario location where some of residential school system’s worst atrocities took place. She learned of sexual and physical assaults, of how the children were forced to eat vomit, and of a homemade electric chair that was used to punish the children. And she learned how little the survivors have been compensated.

“I came to the conclusion that my thesis film and my thesis paper should be about this,” said Enberg. “Because not only were there horrific abuses in the past, but now the survivors are going through further abuses because the government has been obstructing justice—holding back key evidence that would corroborate the stories of the survivors.”

Enberg is now nearing completion of Erasing Cultural Genocide, a feature-length documentary about the school, its survivors, and their fight to have their abuses acknowledged. Featuring emotional interviews with survivors, and with survivor Edmund Metatawabin as co-producer, the film is more than a documentary: it is an attempt to build a bridge towards justice.

“It’s really difficult for them to tell their stories, even 40, 50, 60 years later,” said Enberg. “You have to remember that so many of them were so horrifically abused at the school. And part of that abuse was instilling such a high level of fear to ensure that they would remain silent for a great number of years. And that worked.”

Enberg took the long road to Ryerson. A 51-year-old mature student and single mother, she has devoted most of her career to human rights issues: ranging from publishing academic essays on abuse, to spending time at and writing about an orphanage in El Salvador. She saw documentary filmmaking as a chance to bring her ideas and activism to a wider audience.

The documentary has personal significance for Enberg who is both a survivor of sexual abuse, and someone whose Métis heritage was largely hidden from her. “My grandmother married a First Nations man, and he went off to World War II and lost his status because the ‘benevolence’ of the government was to ensure that any indigenous people who served for the country automatically became Canadian citizens,” said Enberg.

“Tracing his history, and my dad’s side of the family burying it, really resounds with this project. … I get the silence that comes with being sexually abused, and with being indigenous. I get how difficult it is for people to speak about what happened to them”

While at Ryerson, she connected with a capable crew (including executive producer Tim Wolochatiuk, cinematographers Ilan Waldman and Reil Munro, and sound recordist Andrew Leonard), and received $10,000 in travel funding from the Office of the President. “I’ve had a lot of good guidance from professors here,” she said. “But as much as you need a team of people to make a documentary, you really need to be able to propel yourself, and take the initiative to learn on your own. They don’t baby you here. They say, “Here are the tools; it’s best that you learn these.”

Production of the documentary ran parallel to the release of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It also coincides with the potential reopening of the compensation claims case waged by St. Anne’s survivors (survivors allege that the government and Catholic Church have withheld key documents).

“The survivors are my heroes,” said Enberg. “They’ve come out and publicly let people know that Canada’s history is wrong—and not only is it wrong, but there’s such a resistance on the part of the government even today to admit that cultural genocide did occur in the residential schools. From what we know now, it was an intended cultural genocide.”

To learn more about Erasing Cultural Genocide, go to