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B.C. residential school film, ‘Sugarcane’, premieres at Sundance festival

Documentary follows members of Williams Lake First Nation and neighbouring communities

A new film about an emotional probe surrounding a B.C. residential school has made its premiere at a prestigious American film festival.

‘Sugarcane’ premiered Saturday, Jan. 20, in Park City, Utah at Sundance, the largest independent film festival in the United States.

The film follows several members of Williams Lake First Nation (WLFN) and neighbouring communities during WLFN’s investigation into the abuse and disappearance of children at the former St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School.

“It is really good,” said WLFN Kukpi7 (Chief) Willie Sellars. “It will be something that should be in every school in this country as a part of the curriculum around education about the legacy of residential schools.”

Thousands of children from First Nations communities around B.C. attended St. Joseph’s, which was operated by the Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate between 1891 and 1981.

WLFN launched its investigation in July 2021,, which has involved geophysical investigation, archival and photographic research, survivor interviews and engagement at community, family, frontline and political levels.

Featured in the film are Sellars, Charlene Belleau, former chief of Esk’etemc and member of the investigation team, Anna Gilbert and the late Rick Gilbert, former chief and councillor of WLFN who died on Sept. 11, 2023, filmmaker Julian Brave NoiseCat and his father Ed Archie NoiseCat, a father, artist and survivor from Canim Lake.

“Seeing and hearing Rick on the screen is pretty special,” said Sellars who saw the film before the colour and sound were edited.

Interviewed prior to the premiere, Sellars was flying to Utah early Jan. 19, to attend, joined by Belleau, Whitney Spearing, WLFN senior manager for title and rights, and WLFN cultural coordinator David Archie.

Julian Brave NoiseCat will be there, as well as Emily Kassie and Chris LaMarca.

Julian is a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, Kassie is a Canadian filmmaker and investigative journalist who has produced work for The New York Times, PBS, and Netflix and LaMarca is a director, photojournalist and Emmy-nominated cinematographer.

The crew captures more than 1,000 hours of footage while making the film.

“We extend a heartfelt thank-you to the filmmakers Emily, Julian, and Chris LaMarca, director of photography, and to the community members who worked with them to see this project through,” Sellars noted in a news release in December.

“It is because of the bravery of the survivors of St. Joseph’s Mission who told their stories that this film will shed important light on the atrocities that took place in the Canadian residential school system.”

Sellars said he hopes everyone will see the film, which will also be available to watch online through the festival’s website between Jan. 25 and 28, 2024.

A red-carpet screening of the film is planned for the Cariboo, with details to be released at a later date.

With files from Brandon Hoffman

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