Oppression and racism in the real world often do not take place in singular instances but are part of systemic structures that institutionalize prejudice against communities. Starting from the 1800s to only a few decades ago, innumerable Indigenous peoples in Canada were forced to go through systemic oppression in the form of residential schools. Bones of Crows is a beautiful but harrowing presentation of these times, following a Cree woman named Aline Spears and her family members. Neither too flashy nor too heightened, Bones of Crows is made with the right proportions of drama and is definitely a recommended and important watch.
‘Bones Of Crows’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
With multiple different timelines that are jumped to and from throughout its two-hour duration, Bones of Crows focuses on protagonist Aline Spears and her family members. The film begins with a scene from the 1800s, a time that marked the beginning of systemic oppression against Indigenous peoples in Canada. A young Indigenous boy is seen looking up at a heap of bones before a European settler, a white man who has been working for the government to bring all these tribes together in cruel camps, plays a crude joke. By this time, the government had started allotting reservation grounds to the Indigenous tribes and ordering them to relocate from their ancestral lands. On this particular occasion, the tribe leaders manage to shoot the white oppressor as a last resort, but such measures would not last very long.
Jumping forward to 1930, Bones of Crows introduces the loving family of the Spears, who spend happy times in their house built on native Cree land in Manitoba. Young siblings Aline, Perseverance, and Tye were growing up among their culture and traditions, nurtured by caring parents Matthew and January. Being young children with very little care or knowledge of the outside world, the Spears siblings were excited by pastimes like hunting and singing, with special anticipation for cultural festivities. But such warm days did not last long, as within two years, the priest of a local missionary, Father Jacobs, along with a few soldiers, visited the Spears house. By this time, the Canadian government had a law in place that made it compulsory for children of Indigenous families to be taken away from their homes and put in residential missionary schools. Although good education, ample nourishment, and a great future for the children were promised by these schools, parents were understandably against sending their children away. It was almost well known that Indigenous children might never be able to return home to their parents from these schools again, but the Spears, much like every other family, had no other option. Disagreeing to sign the contract accepting the law would get the parents imprisoned, or worse, and with no institutional support, going against the authorities was never an option.
Aline, Perseverance, and Tye, therefore, had to go away too, breaking the mother’s heart as they were loaded onto a truck along with other Indigenous children and driven off to the residential school. Bones of Crows then charts the horrific experiences that the children had to live through at the school and the decades-long effect that this childhood had on them throughout their lives.
How Did The Residential Schools Treat Aline And The Other Children?
The discoveries of new unmarked burial sites of children at spots near missionary residential schools in Canada to this very day have already established to the modern world the atrocities Indigenous children were subjected to at such schools. Bones of Crows does not shy away from presenting a fictional retelling of such abhorrent history, with a particular focus on the school where Aline and her siblings were put up. Most of these schools were run by Catholic missionaries who worked together with the government (established by European white-skinned settlers) to colonize the natives of the land. Much like in other colonized countries, too, there was a charge to educate and teach the “savages” of the land about how men and women of the world should be and act. In Canada, and in this context in particular, there was a popular saying among these indirect colonizers that one must beat the native identity out of the Indigenous peoples. Therefore, all cultural identities, like customs, languages, and beliefs, were forced away from the children at the schools. Any disobedience was punished with exorbitant physical and sexual abuse.
Various experiments with regard to how limiting one’s diet would make one work harder in life were also carried out on these children. Historical evidence proves that while the Indigenous children were kept on a strict and insufficient diet, the staff and authority members at the residential schools would feast on delicacies, sitting in the same dining hall where the children were served. The budget for these feasts used to come from the surplus saved by essentially starving the Indigenous children. While diseases such as tuberculosis and measles would be on the rise because of sheer malnourishment, the oppressors would claim that it was all due to the poverty that the children had to face in their respective families before being “rescued” by the schools. In its final few minutes, the film provides snippets of interviews with real people who had to live through these atrocities, many of whom talk about how the poverty of Indigenous tribes was claimed to be more heinous than the crimes going on at the residential schools. The children were treacherously washed and scrubbed clean, spreading the message that they had to go through such hardships because of their native identities and that they had to be made “pure” to be worthy enough to live in God’s house.
The protagonist of Bones of Crows, Aline, has to go through such treatment at her residential school as well, where she and the other children are made to live under strict rules. Aline sometimes seems to have some moments of respite, owing to her exceptional skill in playing the piano. Father Jacobs, the patriarchal priest at the head of the school, wants to make Aline an example of how his school is caring and nurturing enough to make an Indigenous native into a renowned pianist someday in the future. Young Aline is often made to prepare special pieces for lavish meetings, and she is helped by a young priest, Thomas Miller, who also lives at the school. She is given some meager food, like an extra piece of fruit, for playing the piano at the meetings, and the girl saves it for her siblings, who often have to go to bed hungry. Much later on, towards the end of the film, it is revealed that Aline was also sexually assaulted by the same Thomas Miller during her teenage years, proving that there was no respite for the oppressed after all.
Unable to bear the atrocities at the school, Aline, Perseverance, and Tye had come up with a plan to escape the place, along with a few other children. Although they believed their plan to be quite foolproof, the children could not obviously keep up with the heinous adults. Perseverance was caught during her escape by Father Jacobs, and Aline had to leave her behind. As Perseverance was constantly sexually violated by the priest, she eventually spoke out about the route her siblings had taken to escape the place, and the children were ultimately caught. Young Tye had fallen sick by this time because of the harsh cold outside, but the authorities did not care to treat him. Aline was brought back to the school and gravely punished for her disobedience, which resulted in her losing the use of her left hand and putting an end to any possible future as a pianist. On the other side, Tye was left to die and was buried in an unmarked grave on the school’s premises, similar to the ones that are being found and unearthed in the real world at present.
How Did Aline Finally Escape The Residential School?
After spending her entire childhood and early teenage years at the residential school, Aline had to face the horrific sexual assault by Thomas Miller, which got her pregnant as well. After giving birth to a baby boy, Aline wanted to keep him as her own, but the child was taken away by the school and possibly killed and buried. Although much later, the authorities claimed that the boy had been adopted by a childless family, no paper or proof of the matter made it clear that he must have been killed. It was after this incident that a nun at the school, Sister Ruth, helped Aline escape the place. Despite always being harsh and cruel to Aline and the other children for the past many years, Sister Ruth seemed to be finally touched by the heartless acts of the authorities, and she now let Aline escape and reunite with her mother.
But January Spears knew very well that she could not dare keep her daughter with her for the rest of her life. Fearing that the authorities would come to take Aline away again, the mother ensured that her daughter signed up in the Canadian army, which was looking for recruits at the time, owing to the ongoing WWII. After working as a Morse code operator for some time, she was made part of a special operation in which she and other Cree-speaking individuals were appointed to send and receive war messages in Cree. The Germans were notoriously intercepting military messages at the time, and communicating in Cree would stop such interception. It was during her time in the army that Aline met and fell in love with Adam Whallach, another Canadian soldier of Indigenous ancestry. Aline and Adam also got married in 1942, shortly before the man was posted overseas as part of the military.
What Happened To Perseverance Spears?
Along with all the other horrors of the residential school, Perseverance was subjected to brutal sexual assault by Father Jacobs from a very young age. The girl was affected by this forever in life, and growing up, she got into an abusive relationship in which her partner would often hit their children. One night, Perseverance refused to bear with it any longer and attacked her partner, killing him in the process. The young woman was imprisoned, during which time Aline would visit her at times. After being released from prison, Perseverance could never get out of a dangerous life, and in a world that was still reeling from the effects of the war, she started working as a sex worker to earn her livelihood. With no authorities much concerned with the safety or welfare of such women, Perseverance went missing one night, never to be found again. She was, in all probability, attacked and killed by one of her customers, and Aline too, had a strong feeling of the same, even though no investigation into her disappearance was made.
What Happened To Aline’s Husband, Adam?
Although Aline and Adam were a loving couple in their initial days, the husband gradually started to change following his deployment during the war. As part of the Canadian army, Adam witnessed several horrors of the war that started to break him. One such instance was while infiltrating an abandoned concentration camp in the Netherlands, where Adam stumbled upon a barrack full of prisoners who had been waiting for some outside help to be liberated. As an Indigenous native himself, Adam had also been taken away from his family during his childhood days and kept in a residential school. To him, the sight of the camp in the Netherlands was not very different from the conditions in which he and other children were kept back in Canada.
Adam gradually developed erratic behavior following the end of the war, often becoming aggressive against his wife and children. Since he had joined the war as part of the Canadian Army, Adam’s status as an Indigenous native had been taken away according to the rule of the authorities at the time, and yet he was disallowed from becoming a Canadian citizen because of his native roots. With no benefits from either side and no veteran’s compensation either, he was almost disgraced by an offer of a mere 300 Canadian dollars being offered for his injuries during the war. Bones of Crows once again talks about the general situation of individuals like Adam at the time through the particular events of its plot. Eventually, Adam lost his mental stability and one day killed himself at their family barn, leaving Aline by herself with their young children.
‘Bones Of Crows’ Ending Explained: Did The Indigenous Peoples Receive Any Official Compensation?
Bones of Crows also shifts to a modern timeline of 2009, where an elderly Aline visits the Vatican City along with other Indigenous individuals from Canada. The Pope of the time asked the people to listen to the atrocities that they had to face because of the operations of the Catholic Church and then issued an apology to them. During this meeting, Aline recognizes Thomas Miller, who is now the Vatican Treasurer, and she does not hesitate to call the man out for what he had done to her. Although Miller later tells Aline’s daughter Taylor that he would surely not face any consequence for his crimes, the daughter assures her that she would definitely try to bring some justice. Taylor is shown to be a lawyer working for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Canadian government. While no certain repercussions faced by Miller are shown, Aline is finally at ease after speaking out against her abuser. Bones of Crows finally ends with a heartwarming scene of Aline seeing her granddaughter Percy sing in their native Cree language at a concert held to celebrate Indigenous culture.
At its very end, Bones of Crows also mentions figures and numbers related to the atrocities against Indigenous peoples in residential schools, where thousands of children were killed and buried in unmarked graves. It was only in 2008 that the Canadian government officially apologized for these crimes and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to compensate survivors. In 2022, a group of these survivors traveled to the Vatican to shed light on the abuse they had faced over decades. While Pope Francis did apologize for what the Indigenous population had to face, there has been no official acknowledgment of the Roman Catholic Church’s direct involvement in the genocide against the natives. The bodies of children killed at residential schools continue to be found across Canada, and in a bewildering coincidence, 215 unmarked graves were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the place where Bones of Crows has been partly shot, only a week before filming began.