Filmmaker Sean Stiller has worked on a number projects both in film and television. Currently residing in Toronto, he has family ties with the Williams Lake First Nation and grew up in the Lower Mainland. (Rebecca Dyok photo)

New documentary to showcase B.C. residential school survivor and salmon

The 45-minute film to feature Orange Shirt Society founder Phyllis Webstad

Finding strength and resiliency following pain and trauma will be the focus of a new documentary that will shine light on a residential school survivor and one of B.C’s most iconic species in peril.

Independent filmmaker Sean Stiller was in Williams Lake at Boitanio Park late Wednesday afternoon (July 22) filming Phyllis Webstad whose childhood story helped inspire Orange Shirt Day, held annually across the globe on Sept. 30th.

He said the 45-minute film will tell two stories — one about Webstad and the second about salmon facing dire challenges and their traditional relationship with Indigenous peoples.

“The idea of the film is in the same way that humans are trying to find ways to heal from trauma. The salmon also have their own trauma and pain that have been inflicted upon them, and so we also need to find ways to to heal them and the habitats that they thrive in,” he said.

“So there’s a common theme of overcoming trauma and pain I would say.”

The idea of intertwining the two stories came to Stiller a few years ago when he was working on his master’s thesis and met Webstad who had invited him to her family’s fish camp at Churn Creek.

Read More: Maggie and Tim: B.C. residential school survivor turns to faith, forgiveness in mourning son

“That was a really great experience for me and I realized how strong the relationship was with Phyllis’ family but also Secwepemc people in general and the salmon,” Stiller said.

“I realized there was a very strong cultural link between our obligations to the salmon and our obligations to one another. These two stories are separate but interconnected.”

Webstad, who had four generations of her family including herself attend residential school, said the ongoing struggles of the salmon and the inter-generational impacts within First Nations families as a result of residential school run parallel.

Her grandmother attended residential school for 10 years from 1925 to 1935. Webstad’s son attended Canada’s last residential school in Punnichy, Sask. which did not close until 1996.

“It’s a natural fit,” she said, noting as a part of her story when she talks and in her book — The Orange Shirt Story — it starts out with memories of being on the reserve with her grandmother and doing things they would normally do such as gardening and fishing in the river.

“I spent summers down on the river with granny and her family and all the cousins would come from wherever and they would be there for the whole summer and fish for breakfast, fish for lunch, fish for dinner.”

Read More: High tech fish transport system set up to ‘whoosh’ salmon past Big Bar landslide

Being able to once fish salmon that seemed abundant however, might now remain a memory as many First Nations have issued fishing closures for the species which continue to face ongoing challenges. The Northern Shuswap Tribal Council has closed fishing for sockeye and chinook until Aug. 5, 2020 to allow the early timed Stuart sockeye and as many Chinook as possible to reach their spawning grounds.

Commercial and recreational fisheries are not anticipated on Fraser River Sockeye in 2020 according to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

For the documentary, Webstad said she will once again invite Stiller to attend her family’s fishing camp which they will set up on Aug. 4 in the hopes of catching a few salmon once the closure is lifted.

“But I don’t know because it’s looking pretty bleak right now with our Fraser River levels so high because of all the fires and the trees not being able to absorb the water — it’s just gone right down to the Fraser and the salmon are having a hard time coming up,” she said.

“In addition to the Big Bar slide now they have more against them to make it to where they’ve got to go.”

Funded by Canadian Heritage, the documentary is a result of the Orange Shirt Society entering a partnership with Royal Canadian Geographical Society to complete a 10-part project one of which involved Webstad speaking to elementary students across the country.

Stiller will be filming until Aug. 12 and said he hopes to have the documentary completed by early spring.

While yet to be determined, the documentary is anticipated to be titled Returning Home.

Read More: Orange Shirt Society seeks to trademark ‘Every Child Matters’

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