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Highlights

Indigenous man, tears in his eyes, hugs a man in a dark suit jacket on what appears to be a stage. Another man watches in the background.

“Sugarcane” Exposes the Atrocities at St. Joseph’s Mission

Julian Brave NoiseCat hugs Chief Willie Sellars as the “Sugarcane” film team takes the stage following the premiere of the documentary January 20 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Vanessa Zimmer

Ed Archie NoiseCat has spent his life running away from the Indian boarding school at St. Joseph’s Mission near Williams Lake, British Columbia. His son, Julian Brave NoiseCat, has spent his life running toward it.

The result of the younger NoiseCat’s quest, Sugarcane — a powerful account of rapes, deaths, suicides, and missing children at the Catholic-run residential school — debuted January 20 in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. NoiseCat co-directed the film with Emily Kassie, a Canadian filmmaker and journalist.

The audience rose in a standing ovation as both NoiseCats, Kassie, and some of those who participated in the investigation of abuse at the school — Chief Willie Sellars, Charlene Belleau, and Whitney Spearing — took the stage for the Q&A following the premiere. Tears flowed and the embraces were long and strong among them.

“What a film, huh? Oh man,” says a visibly shaken Ed Archie NoiseCat. “I can’t tell you how moved I am and how much healing went on through the making of this film.” After years of emotional struggles, he says, he has a good life now, making his wood-carved art and enjoying a closer relationship with his son — who confesses in the film that he felt abandoned by his father, who spent so many years distancing himself from Williams Lake.

The elder NoiseCat hopes for the film to continue the healing and to encourage individuals and communities to reach out to each other and “make a difference in the world.” His wish is echoed by a tearful Belleau, who worked in the residential school system for 35 years and advocated for survivors. “I knew this day would come,” she says, when the truth would come out. 

The co-directors followed an investigation launched in 2021 into long-circulating, and also long-denied, rumors of physical and sexual abuse at the school, missing children, and secret graves on the Catholic-run mission property. The school closed in 1981.

The profoundly disturbing stories of Sugarcane far exceed the “typical” tragic injustices of Indian schools stealing a child’s language and culture. Not only did the priests and nuns of St. Joseph’s cut the children’s hair and insist they speak English, the injustices went much further than that. Firsthand accounts in the film recount nightly rounds that rousted the selected out of their beds for sexual assault — and of babies born at the school. An elderly man, a former student, haltingly tells of watching from a hiding place as a crying baby was tossed into an incinerator. 

For 150 years, the Canadian government required Indigenous children to attend segregated boarding schools, most of them Catholic-run. St. Joseph’s Mission was one of an estimated 139 in the country. The last school operated until 1997.

The United States had 350 Indigenous boarding schools, according to the film, and the filmmakers urge a broadening of the effort to expose atrocities in both Canada and the U.S. Julian Brave NoiseCat told the Sundance audience that the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, the first Native American on the U.S. cabinet, was among them Saturday night — and that she is leading an inquiry into the American boarding schools.

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.

A group of seven people poses in front of a 2024 Sundance Film Festival backdrop

L–R: Whitney Spearing, Willie Sellars, Ed Archie NoiseCat, Julian Brave NoiseCat, Emily Kassie, Charlene Belleau, and David Archie attend the premiere of “Sugarcane” on January 20 at the Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

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