Dr. Jules Arita Koostachin’s deeply personal documentary WaaPaKe (Tomorrow) asks the difficult question: “Who are we without our pain?”
For generations, the suffering of residential school Survivors has radiated outward, impacting Indigenous families and communities. Children, parents and grandparents have contended with the unspoken trauma, manifested in the lingering effects of colonialism: addiction, emotional abuse and broken relationships.
In her efforts to help the children of Survivors, including herself and her family, Koostachin makes the difficult decision to step in front of the camera and participate in the circle of truth. She is joined in this courageous act of solidarity by members of her own family, as well as an array of voices from Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. Each person’s individual journey is different, but in sharing their experiences, ways to create space, heal from chaos and forge new paths forward are explored.
Employing a range of innovative cinematic means, including collage, soundscapes and set design, the documentary illustrates not only the complex and deep-seated emotional undercurrents at work but also the layered stories of the people, embedded in the land itself. In learning how to actively demonstrate love and break the cycle of abuse, Indigenous ways of being, as well as creativity, play an enormous role—whether it’s filmmaking, poetry or learning to hunt in the Ancestral way.
Moving beyond burying intergenerational trauma, WaaPaKe (Tomorrow) is an invitation to unravel the tangled threads of silence and unite in collective freedom and power.
Do you aim your work for specific groups of people? And, specifically for WaaPaKe, who are you hoping for as an audience?
Whenever I produce new works, my main audience in mind is my community—an Indigenous community. I do this because I was raised by my Cree grandparents and my mother. It is a part of my DNA to start my story from this place of knowing. I was raised with the Cree language and culture and it is inevitable that it will come through in my storytelling practice. When we visit Elders or Knowledge Keepers and they share stories and teachings, we only take away what we are ready to hear. Hearing means to really sit and listen… not bombarding them with questions and not trying to extract their knowledge. To listen means to engage and listen—it is about being engaged. The same goes for my work; as an artist, I find it challenging at times to fully articulate my messaging in the story because it comes from my soul. It comes from a place of truth searching. It is hard to put into words at times, especially when we are speaking to our own lived experiences or from our heart. I want people to engage with my work and learn something about Indigeneity. For me, if a film really impacts me, I’ll watch it over and over. Every single time, I take away something new, and I believe it’s because I’ve changed. This is the beautiful part of storytelling and means that Indigenous story carries agency.
WaaPaKe to me, feels like a prayer. When we pray, we ask for guidance, and often times, we don’t always find the answers, but we start the process by putting it out there in the universe. WaaPaKe is a personal narrative of trying to find peace from within. It’s about forgiveness and hope for a better tomorrow. It took me a long time to decide on the right platform to share my truth, and I am grateful that it unfolded as it did. It is a painful story, and I know that I held back a lot, but I am fine with my choice to do so. During production, I invited some of my friends with similar experiences to help me by sharing their own experiences of intergenerational trauma. I was in awe at how articulate and powerful our conversations were. I felt honoured and empowered to be a part of their journey.
Do you have any concerns that people may read your work differently from the way you intended it?
No, but I do pay attention to Indigenous storytelling protocols and ensure that I check in with myself often. I am cautious to a fault and worry a lot about doing the right thing. I have an Indigenous audience in mind, and I feel that settlers can do the work for themselves if they don’t understand core themes or the context. As a storyteller, I am responsible and accountable to my community, therefore this is where my concern rests. If someone is way off, that’s fine. I just hope that they walk away with questions and find the answers on their own, and not at the expense of an Indigenous person. It is emotional labour to aways have to explain our pain. We are still trying to navigate the impact of colonialism and articulate our experiences. We are still so close to the trauma, so to speak about it from a distance is not possible, currently anyway.
What is your earliest memory of art making?
When I was a child, I used to draw, play musical instruments at school, and dance, and I would be lost in my own world. My imagination is what saved me from my adverse childhood. I am an artist and love creating. I get into a zone and it feels amazing to get lost in the creative process. I produced my first play when I was in Grade 4, and I soon realized that I had a gift. It was a mess of a production, but I knew that storytelling, in all its incredible platforms, is where I needed to be to be truly happy.
What role do you think your culture plays in your creativity?
Cree culture is everything to me. I know that when one looks at me, they have their own expectations and understanding of who I am because of how I present. I am Cree through and through. The English language was introduced to me later in my young life, and we never had books in our home, just Cree bibles. Please don’t feel sorry for me either (if you do, then I ask you to reflect on your own settler colonialism), because I had two incredible Cree-speaking grandparents who lived off the land and taught me the importance of orality. Looking back, I would not have had it any other way. Going to school and facing all the hate from the educational system was where I felt the most unsafe. I internalized all those false narratives, which caused me a lot of unnecessary turmoil. It’s my culture that has fueled my fire and inspired me to unapologetically move forward with the work I do!
There are layers of media woven throughout WaaPaKe: photos, collage, animation. Was that your vision from the beginning, or did that grow as you worked on the film?
When I am about to embark on a new journey, I am all about the process. It is about the reflection, the discussions and working in collaboration with other artists. My vision usually starts with a question; with WaaPaKe, it started with ‘Who am I without her trauma?’ and we went from there. As stated, storytelling is like a prayer. WaaPaKe reflects the beautiful artistic process of praying and finding community.
Working with your mother’s voice, you do a great job of capturing the effort it takes for our Elders to speak on these themes, and this carries through. Were there any challenges? Were there moments where you found yourself taking extra care?
I have to always be careful with my mother. Sometimes I just want to lay it all on the table, but then I soon realized that I need to tread carefully. I need to handle our past with care, for now anyway. Of course, I need to censor myself, but with that stated, I also deserve to speak my truth and heal from my childhood trauma. For now, out of respect, I will keep the my story inside. When you are the child of a Survivor, you have taken on the caregiver role. This is my reality. Therefore, I sacrifice my truth in its entirety.
How did you create this safe space?
Taking my time during production is my self-care, and asking hard questions during post-production is necessary as well. I don’t think we can ever really create a ‘safe space,’ but we can try and do the best we can—that is why there are Indigenous storytelling protocols in place. If I don’t feel right about something, I will follow my instinct.
Your intention to invite healing by starting these conversations… did these conversations continue within your family and circle after the film was completed?
I have been plagued with listening to my mother’s horror stories about residential school since childhood, and so to be honest, I don’t have it in me to hear them anymore. It is too painful, but I sit quietly and listen to her stories. All I have ever wanted was healthy relationships with my family. I believe that the healing process is a personal journey, and it is up to an individual to seek the help they need.
Written and Directed by
Dr. Jules Arita Koostachin
Director of Photography
Jules Arita Koostachin
In memory of
Stevie Nichol and Peter Okimawinninew
Title & Motion Graphics Designer
Key Hair & Make-Up Artists
Bárbara Rafaela Guimaraes Costa
Indigenous Registered Clinical Counsellor
Andrea Velarde Mosquera
Roger Brown & Fiona Schmiegelow
Kwantlen First Nation
Chris Sheldon & Sim Camera
Colin Van Loon
Mike Wollin & Shoreline Studios
Adrian Sutherland/Midnight Shine Music
Jules Arita Koostachin
CTV News Vancouver
National Film Board of Canada Archives
Langley School District to lower
flags in recognition of unmarked
Matthew Claxton, July 26, 2021
Al Jazeera Media Network
Pope apologises for ‘evil’ of Canada’s
Al Jazeera Staff, July 25, 2022
America The Jesuit Review
A burial site for Indigenous children
was found in Canada. Could it happen in
the United States?
Kevin Clarke, June 14, 2021
Williams Lake First Nation says its
located files showing additional deaths
at former residential school,
Danielle Paradis, January 26, 2023
Dozens more graves found at former
residential school sites,
BBC News, February 16, 2022
Jawbone found in possible unmarked
residential school grave,
Holly Honderich, January 12, 2022
Canada’s National Observer
‘Our people need healing’: We Wai Kai elder on
children’s residential school grave site,
Rochelle Baker, June 1, 2021
Canada’s National Observer
Reflections on National Indigenous Peoples Day
by residential school survivors,
Jessica Smith, June 21, 2022
Feds appoint special interlocutor for
unmarked graves tied to residential
John Paul Tasker, June 8, 2022
Interlocutor on unmarked graves
‘very concerned’ by feds $2M deal
with international organization,
Brett Forester, February 9, 2023
New resources help Indigenous communities
start process of searching for unmarked graves,
Karen Pauls, June 14, 2021
Research begins into unmarked
graves at site of St. Anne’s residential
CBC News, February 1, 2022
Sask. First Nation announces
discovery of 751 unmarked graves
near former residential school,
Bryan Eneas, June 24, 2021
Search of Pine Creek Residential
School site in western Manitoba finds
14 possible unmarked graves,
Rachel Bergen, August 8, 2022
Some searches are done, but other residential
school sites in the northeast won’t be checked for several years,
Erik White, January 31, 2023
Fort Albany Nation embarks on journey
to uncover truth behind St. Anne’s Indian
Lydia Chubak, January 30, 2022
Search reveals 169 potential unmarked
graves at former Canadian residential school,
Amanda Musa, Aya Elamroussi, March 2, 2022
Remains of 215 children found buried near
school in Canada,
Paula Newton, June 1, 2021
Four bands at Maskwacis honour memory
of children who perished at residential school,
Anna Junker, June 1, 2021
182 human remains in unmarked graves
found at site of former residential school in
Amy Judd, Jon Azpiri, June 30, 2021
Search uncovers 171 ‘plausible burials’
near Ontario residential school,
Jordan Omstead, January 18, 2023
The Canadian Press
International group hired by
Ottawa asks to be given a chance on unmarked graves,
Stephanie Taylor, February, 22, 2023
The Canadian Press
Supreme Court will not hear from
St. Anne’s residential school survivors,
Stephanie Taylor, October 20, 2022
The Globe and Mail
Interim report on unmarked graves
finds Indigenous communities still
face insufficient funding, lack of
access to records,
Patrick White, November 11, 2022
The New York Times
‘Horrible History’: Mass Grave of
Indigenous Children Reported
Ian Austen, September 5, 2022
After Canadian residential school
discoveries, what does ‘reconciliation’
really look like?,
Elisha Valladares-Cormier, June 29, 2021
Chief cautions careful approach to
residential school burial site investigation,
Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, June 16, 2021
Investigation begins into locating
possible burial sites at St. Anne’s,
Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, January 26, 2022
Kids’ Graves Exposed the Horror
of Canada’s Residential Schools.
Outrage isn’t Enough.,
Anya Zoledziowski, September 30, 2021
Katja De Bock
Filmed on the Indigenous lands of the Stz’uminus, səl̓ilwətaɬ təməxʷ, Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Stó:lō Nation, xʷməθkʷəy̓əm,
Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla, Semiahmoo, W̱ SÁNEĆ, Kwantlen First Nation, scəẁaθən məsteyəxʷ, sq̓ əc̓iy̓aɁɬ təməxʷ, Tāłtān Nation, Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, Champagne & Aishihik First Nation, Anishinabek Nation, Attawapiskat First Nation.
The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line provides 24-hour crisis support to former Indian Residential School students and their families toll-free at 1-866-925-4419.
© National Film Board of Canada, 2023.