Marie Clements Brings the Truth of Residential Schools to the Big Screen

"There's stories in those wood panels and in those closets," says the 'Bones of Crows' director

Photos: courtesy of Elevation Pictures (left), Farah Nosh (right)

BY Rachel HoPublished May 31, 2023

A week before filming began on Bones of Crows in 2021, the Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported that the remains of 215 children were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. Suddenly, the importance of the movie, which was scheduled to film on that very site, was both heightened and diminished. 

"It was a very unique time and place," recalls Métis director and writer Marie Clements, speaking with Exclaim! over Zoom. "The synergy of what we were filming and what they were dealing with and processing [was significant]."

Clements and her crew assumed that they wouldn't be able to proceed with filming for obvious reasons, but the Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc First Nation surprised them. "They said, 'We still want you here. We want people to know what happened here.' And they stood behind us for the whole shoot," Clements says with a sense of awe over the council's courage and fortitude still clinging to her voice. 

To understand the Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc First Nation's decision is to understand the story being told in Bones of Crows. Inspired by actual events and people, the film centres on Aline Spears and her siblings after they are forcibly removed from their parents and sent to a residential school. The multi-generational story sees the matriarch Spears as a WWII code-breaker who uses her Cree language to aid Canada in the war effort, and continues through to the apology given by the Vatican for the Catholic Church's role in the residential school system. 

An epic historical drama that stretches from the 1920s to present day, Bones of Crows (out in cinemas June 2, with an extended TV series to follow this fall on CBC) seeks to tell Canadian history through the eyes of the people who stood on this land first. Given the history being explored in the film, Clements recognizes the honour of being granted permission from the Tkʼemlúps te Secwépemc First Nation to film in the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

"There was a divine privilege to shoot there and to understand the gravity of those rooms," Clements remembers. "We were looking from the windows and looking down [at] the memorial, [watching] lots of people coming in [and] giving respect. Imagining yourself at five or six years old looking out [those] windows — it changes how we see [the history] and how we feel it."

She continues, "There's something in that feeling that translates to the lens [and] into the words that actors embody, because they understand that they're a continuation of a story that's untold."

In the last few years there has been a surge in Canadian Indigenous cinema; "We've seen this canon ignite" is how Clements so aptly describes it. A common thread found among many of these movies is the pursuit of truth — truth in how the history of our country is told in film and whose perspectives we hear it from. 

For Clements, this drive towards the truth can be traced back to her first career as a journalist and her early inspirations and influences, including war photographer Robert Capa. 

"I went to his exhibit way back when, and there was something in that moment of seeing these photos of people in war — there was an immediacy to it," Clements says of Capa's work. "You're seeing somebody for the last time at that moment, and there's an urgency to the story and what is its truth. I really leaned into that."

Capa's work motivated Clements to consider what was happening in her own country and who was given permission to tell that story. "I was perplexed [by] why we only have one perspective. Is the dominant perspective the truth? Those were the questions that I was really seeking out," she says.

While Clements has long since left behind her journalistic roots, she asserts that her ferocious curiosity remains: "Those things are interesting to me and have never ceased to be interesting. I might not always agree with what I'm seeing or hearing, but I'm curious about how it exists, why it exists, and how someone gets there."

The truth of Canada's residential school system has yet to be fully articulated — and, realistically, may never be. There are still many unanswered questions, stories that won't be told, and people and groups whose responsibility won't ever be upheld. But films like Bones of Crows, and the way in which it was filmed, are a step in giving a voice to those lost. 

"There's stories in those wood panels and in those closets. Even if no one's there [anymore], there's spirits — things that happened in these places are still being revealed," Clements explains. "There's something about filming a story based on truth, in a place where the truth hasn't been heard."

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