Cold Journey Commentary

What happens to a child who feels that all doors are closed to him? This is the central question of Cold Journey, a 1975 feature directed by Martin Defalco for the National Film Board (NFB). One of the first Canadian films to tell a story based on aboriginal experience from an aboriginal point of view, Cold Journey was also one of the first cultural texts in Canada to focus on the role of the residential school in the lives of aboriginal children.

Released before public revelations of rampant sexual, psychological and physical abuse in residential schools, Cold Journey examines their major failing – a misguided attempt to assimilate children to white society. Buckley (Buckley Potawabano) is a fifteen year old  boy who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Living ten months each year in residential school for most of his life means that he can no longer speak Cree and he has lost any knowledge he might once have had about how to live on the land. His mother, asks him what the point is to going to that school if they don’t teach him Cree. His elders reject him time and again or laugh at him because he hasn’t got the cultural knowledge they have passed on to their own sons. Even when his janitor friend (Johnny Yesno) takes him to Uncle John (Chief Dan George) for guidance, his is told that, unless a boy is learning the culture from the age of a year old, he can never really be an Indian.

Buckley’s father loves the land and is an expert trapper and fisherman. He takes his family to a summer camp in the bush to fish and hunt; he goes on his trapline every winter. When he comes home from the trapline, he drinks in despair. He knows he does not belong in town.

Buckley loves his summers at home even if he doesn’t belong. His last summer is pivotal for him. He has decided to quit school, learn from his father and join him on the trapline in the fall. But another door shuts in Buckley’s face that summer. Fishing officials close all the lakes near their village due to mercury poisoning. Buckley’s father determines to go far enough north to be able to fish, but tells his son to go back to school and learn to live like a white man: there is nothing for him at home.

However, Buckley is not accepted in white society either. No matter how hard he tries, he is still an Indian to white people. He begins skipping school, drinking and hanging out with the janitor, John, who does have all the traditional skills and knowledge that Buckley craves. Yet, he is curiously unwilling to share them. When Buckley lands up at John’s cabin with a “borrowed” skidoo, John reluctantly agrees to take him along on his trapline. Yet, John finds every opportunity to remind Buckley that he is not a “real” Indian. When they take their furs into the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) store, they receive a poor price because furs are now unfashionable down south. In frustration, John and Buckley engage in a scuffle with the clerk; Buckley is returned to the residential school temporarily, but is told that her is actually being sent to reform school. John tells him to run, which Buckley does, out to the train track, where John finds him, frozen to death, the next day.

In his narration of the incident, John asks why a fifteen year old Indian kid didn’t have enough sense to get in out of the cold. Why indeed?

Clearly, the residential school, as a metaphor for colonialism, is presented as the reason why this boy died. Stripped of his indigenous culture, but never fully allowed into the dominant culture, he is trapped in a cultural limbo with only a partial skill set from each side. The frightening thing for these children is the future. Limbo has a time limit. Once school is over, what then? The choice for Buckley seems to be a half life in one culture or the other.

At school, Buckley is surrounded by well-meaning adults. The Catholic residential school is regulated by rules and bells and dress codes. But those are the constraints of the Catholic Church in any event, the way that priests discipline themselves. The white teachers are either innocently earnest like the English teacher trying to get the students to appreciate iambic tetrameter; or the arrogant, yet well-intentioned home room teacher who wants his students to have well-developed plans for success in a career. He wants his students to do useful things, like study, over the summer holidays. He views Buckley’s desire to hunt and fish as a waste of time.

When a program is devised to integrate the brighter students into a chite school and to board with white families, Buckley is sent to live with the Gauthiers, who mean well enough, but whose own success as parents is less than inspiring.

All the whites in the movie are presented as redundant, clueless or misguided: not evil, just ineffectual. But the aboriginal adults are not any better at serving the needs of the children. Buckley’s mother is cynical, yet helpless to change things. His father has given up. Uncle John is full of wisdom, but rejects the boy as too white. And John the janitor lacks any direction for his own life. He leans on his Uncle John as a spiritual mentor and alternates between working for the school and escaping to this traplines. But he has no real idea of what to do with his life; nor can he offer any real support to Buckley, other than a few beers and a good time. All these adults fail to support this intelligent, idealistic teenager.

The other metaphor of colonialism that sustains the theme is the railroad, along which Buckley dies. As the first permanent incursion into native land, the railroad (and later the road) figures prominently in narratives of culture clash. It presents a double-edged promise of escape to school and good jobs as well as a serious threat to traditional ways. Residential schools were often located by train tracks, bringing children to school, and then taking them home again. But the railroad holds no promise for Buckley. He has no home to go to. And, even if he got there, he would have no place.

This is a bleak movie produced in an era of heightened political awareness amongst Canada’s aboriginal peoples. Three years earlier, Martin Defalco co-directed with Willie Dunn of the NFB’s Indian Film Crew, “The Other Side of the Ledger” (1972), which gave an aboriginal account of the encounter of First Nations with the HBC. The 1970s saw several such efforts to give voice to Canada’s colonized peoples.

Evelyn Ellerman