Confronting the Horrors of Indigenous Children in a Colonial Country

Jeff Barnaby’s film Rhymes for Young Ghouls, is a complex movie that touches the dichotomies of social structures using fiction to express the realities within Indigenous communities. The film successfully compares the effects of colonial legacies to the agency of Indigenous people. Although the movie was not a documentary, many of the images and overall story line adequately represent the lives of the past and present Indigenous population. Growing up on a reservation and being exposed to a variety of the impacts of colonial trauma, it is evident that the movie highlights the lingering systemic issues within reservations. The film serves to enhance the national consciousness of the Canadian public by triggering discussions regarding intergenerational trauma that was inflicted by colonial systems such as Residential Schools and the Indian Act. The reoccurring theme within the film outlines the stripping of childhood. This tactic was used to accomplish the erasure of Indigeneity potentially; but, rather than portraying only the hardships of Indigenous communities, Rhymes for Young Ghouls also displays the high-level of resilience Indigenous people had through these times. Specifically, Barnaby purposely makes an effort to exhibit the resilience of Indigenous children under the leadership of a young woman. The film is unsettling and uncomfortable to watch, but that is exactly why it needs to be viewed.

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It is without a doubt that Rhymes for Young Ghouls successfully mocks the Canadian governmental structures by exploiting the harsh realities of life on a reservation in the seventies. The first aspect of the film draws on the ongoing influences of colonial guidelines and the sorrows that haunt Indigenous people through internalized and externalized forms of abuse. By beginning the story with portraying a scene that involves alcoholism, the viewers are reminded of the lethal consequences the Canadian states policies inflicted on Indigenous people. The death of the child in the opening scene allows the movie to escalate rapidly, and this can be compared to the fast spiral of intergenerational trauma among colonial survivors. Childhood trauma is the driving force behind the link to lack of parental methods. Popper with his superiority, samples of the level of maltreatment Indigenous children attending residential school experienced in the scene when he is thoughtfully calling the children down and reminded them that they are worthless and trapped in the school. Although the children in this scene are not the parents of Alia and her generation, this gives the viewers an understanding of why children of the new generation, such as Alia suffer. Residential schools and their tactics to harm children’s self-perception is done intentionally to stunt the growth of the new members of the community. Alia is confronted with little to no options to ensure her security and therefore resorts to assisting the adult crowd of her community to relieve their pain by abusing substances such as marijuana. It is not a coincidence that she wears a mask while proceeding her “duty.” She is aware of the harm that she is creating not only to those who use her substances but also, to her spirit. It is clear that the lack of parental intervention during this scene is a demonstration of the disconnect children have from their parents because residential schools triggered confusion of how to raise a child. Indigenous children, since colonization were subjected to violent situations at their most impressionable ages and were not exposed to real familial values and therefore incapable of providing a healthy environment for their children.

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Alia is bombarded with numerous responsibilities throughout the film. The viewers are unaware of the heroin’s age, but it is evident that Alia is too young to be experiencing the role of taking care of intoxicated adults on their journey home in the first few minutes of the film. The young indigenous woman signifies the ties of matrilineal descent and the customs of traditional Indigenous communities. There are many scenes where she demonstrates not only her ability to keep the family together but also to defend her family members and shield them from the negative cloud of colonization. However, the strongest point for me was the illegal obligations she felt that she had to carry out in order to financially support her family and assist the Indian Agent in scamming the system. Alia, with confidence, spoke in her native tongue when confronted by the Indian Agent when he returned her uncle. This scene symbolized the strong nature of Indigenous women and the unwillingness to conform to colonial standards. Furthermore, the sound of her language also highlighted to anxieties of settler-colonizers, as this act is deemed as rebellious. Every aspect of herself, which includes, language and culture are restricted by the Indian Act. Barnaby purposefully uses a young Indigenous woman to present this role of refusal, to surface the growing issues of patriarchy within a colonial country. Alia is confronting Popper’s illusion of superiority and challenges his notion of authority by speaking in her language that is threatening to him and his power. The corruption of the Indian Agent that is displayed works to bolden the level of violence the colonial institutions and their implanted legislation that dehumanizes Indigenous people.

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As mentioned above, the ability to limit children of their youthful years was a primary goal for the church and state. Barnaby includes a few scenes that demonstrated the importance of adolescent years. These segments in the film serve as contradictions to the school system as they were ineffective with erasing the playfulness of the children. The scenes are important as they act as reminders to the viewers that Alia is a child and her bravery to tackle these complex issues within her reservation sometimes encourages viewers to forget her actual age. The tree house is a vital piece to the story, as it signifies security; it is Alia’s sanctuary, and a place where she can hide from the chaotic lifestyle colonial operations have forced upon her. Furthermore, youthhood is clearly exemplified in the scene where the children collect human waste to prank the Indian Agent Popper. This display of children’s resilience is especially cynical, for the reasons that it shows an adolescent approach to dealing with uncomfortable, complicated issues. Popper, the Indian Agent, and priest, signify the oppressive nature of the systems which features the role of white supremacy. The teenagers took it upon themselves to address the injustices that the Indian agent/priest continuously inflicted onto them and their peers and they handled it in the best way that they knew how too.

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Unlearning the Myths of colonization and how the stories of Canada’s past contribute to our present and future is essential for decolonization to take place. Rhymes for Young Ghouls creates a dialogue for all citizens to discuss the tragedies of colonial forces. Whether it be grandparents speaking of their residential school experience, or a colonial settler asking questions of the truth, the movie has the potential to bring healing to all community members of Canada. This movie demonstrated that high rates of substance abuse, suicide, and family dysfunction among indigenous people is a direct result of the residential schools and the colonial system. It is convenient for our society to not recognize the legacy of residential schools and how the assimilation system promoted injustice for Indigenous and these impacts affect everyone whether they attend the school or not. The ignorance of Canada has allowed colonialism to be an ongoing issue within the country by ignoring the truth and not allowing Indigenous people to overcome the barriers of residential schools. Rhymes for Young Ghouls breaks down these barricades of ignorance within colonial Canada by using fiction to highlight the realities of Indigenous children’s suffrage and more importantly their resilience.

Works Cited

Barnaby, Jeff. Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Montreal” Prospector Films, 2013. 88min.



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