There were once nearly two dozen residential schools across British Columbia. The Lejac Indian Residential School was one. Many Indigenous children arrived at Lejac by train, some coming from as far north as the Yukon. Lyana Patrick’s animated short film The Train Station was inspired by the story of her father and grandmother’s experience.
Patrick’s grandmother walked 10 kilometres along the railway tracks to bring her son at Lejac food, comfort and the opportunity to speak his own language, in essence to ensure his survival. Her son, Patrick’s father, became the chief of the Stellat'en First Nation (Carrier Nation), and the film is dedicated to her grandmother.
The Train Station is part of a new series of short documentaries titled Behind the Façade produced by Lantern Films, airing on Knowledge Network. Several directors tell different stories inspired by various structures across the province.
Behind the Façade is part of Knowledge Network’s 150 Stories that Shape British Columbia, a series that also includes documentaries about B.C.’s writers (Evelyn Lau, John Vaillant and Patrick Lane to name a few), music community (everything from the Dishrags to Little Mountain Sound Studios), and other famous provincial people.
Watching these many short documentaries is like assembling a puzzle. Slowly a bigger picture starts to reveal itself. But what does this picture really look like? Many colours, shapes and forms, darkness and light, variegated shades. Some good things, some terrible things, and overall a complex and evolving portrait of a place and people that is still in the midst of shifting and changing.
This cinematic collection is a powerful reminder that the past is never really past; it’s still very much with us, lingering longest in built structures. Some are benign, places of worship, community, celebration, while others, like Lejac, carry with them some of the darkest chapters of B.C. history.
There’s something both enticing and frustrating about these short films. You get just a glimpse of longer, thornier stories and then boop! They’re over. Still, there are pleasures to be had, one of which is sending you down an unexpected path in search of further knowledge.
In Casa Mia: The Headlines, director Dave Rodden-Shortt draws connections between the grandeur of one of Vancouver’s most splendiferous mansions with the news of the day. Behind every great fortune there is a great crime, and in the case of Casa Mia, it was rum running. The house sported eight bedrooms and bathrooms, a grand ballroom with a sprung dance floor, palatial staircases, rotundas and massive stone fireplaces.
Built in 1932 by George Reifel, who made his fortune during prohibition, the house was a reflection of the ambitions of the age. Reifel poured his fortune into other properties in Vancouver, including the Commodore Ballroom and the Vogue Theatre. Architect Ross Anthony Lort, who also designed the Hobbit House on King Edward, designed Casa Mia. When the house was rezoned, the application included some of its history, with an excerpt from Donald Luxton’s Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia:
“This lavish home was one of the largest ever built in Vancouver, and Reifel paid for everything in cash. Lort supervised the construction, and one Friday, Reifel, who hadn’t paid the architect for a while, peeled a $1,000 banknote off a huge roll of bills and handed it to Lort, who took it home, and hid it under the bedroom carpet under one leg of the bed. He and his wife took turns sitting on the bed until Monday when he could take it to the bank. No one at the bank had ever seen one before.”
As the camera snakes through the hallways and ornate rooms, it’s hard not be at least a bit impressed by what money can buy. On the house’s third floor, a mural painted by some of the original Disney artists graces what was once a child’s playroom. The house has since passed through multiple hands, bought and sold for dizzying amounts of money. It’s currently slated to become a senior’s home and is under renovation.
Other places, humbler in their origins, are arguably more impactful for generations of people.
The Friendship Centre in East Vancouver is one. Lyana Patrick and Rosemary Georgeson’s film A Place to Belong traces the beginnings of the movement, which led to more than 100 similar centres across the country. Founded in 1963, partly as a way to provide a place of community for a rapidly urbanizing Indigenous population, friendship centres provided culture, kinship and a gathering place. Patrick and Georgeson capture Christmas celebrations where member Kat Norris and founder Marjorie White explain that while the Christian holiday was never part of First Nations culture, it’s still a time when families, community members and kids come together to celebrate.
Many of the Façade films take as their subject communal spaces and what they offer people. This ranges from the quotidian (a hangout space, a performance venue or even a diner that serves up a good breakfast) to the deeply profound. Sometimes these things are glommed together so densely it’s hard to unpack them.
Most folks who live in Vancouver and environs have probably eaten at the Tomahawk Restaurant. What looks on the surface like kitsch and cultural appropriation in the place is a little more complex. Lyana Patrick takes a closer look at the relationship between one of the oldest family-run restaurants in B.C. and local Indigenous people, including Skwxwú7mesh carver Robert Yelton whose work graces the walls of the restaurant. Although the collection of artwork contains some questionable items, there is also work of considerable cultural significance, including paddles that served as models for Squamish artist Richard Baker.
Other places where people gathered were much less visible. One was the Happytime Social Club at 1022 Davie St. in Vancouver. The address currently belongs to Celebrities nightclub, but the building has been a dancehall ever since its construction. In the 1950s, the Happytime Social Club operated out of the basement. Like many gay establishments of the era, it was almost invisible, much like the people who frequented it.
Director Dave Rodden-Shortt uses the experience of a man named Joseph R. Selsey to offer a glimpse into queer life in the 1950s. A box of Selsey’s belongings — photographs, mementos and a membership card from the Happytime Social Club — were discovered sitting beside a dumpster in the city’s West End. As the film’s narration explains, Selsey was one of the lucky ones. His photos and letters reveal a man who was loved, accepted and happy. Celebrities opened in 1982 in Vancouver, but the lingering role played by the once-secret club in the basement remains, a symbol of a time when gay men and women could only be open about their sexuality in hidden places.
As a site of safety, refuge and cultural identity, built structures are critical in allowing for marginalized people to find on another.
The Gur Sikh temple, North America’s oldest running gurdwara, is one such place. Baljit Sangra’s Have You Forgotten Me? uses the story of Indar Singh, who came to Canada in 1930 and left his wife in India, to reveal the experience of the South Asian diaspora. Policy at the time prohibited spouses from immigrating together, and as a consequence the couple was separated for more than 20 years.
Their story illustrates the racial prejudice and xenophobia that permeated Canadian culture. As Singh’s son Nash and daughter-in-law Rajinder Gill explain, there were signs on restaurants in Vancouver that stated: “No Dogs or East Indians Allowed Inside.” The temple, constructed in 1911, was one of few places that South Asian people could gather to pray, socialize and share news. It remains a place of enduring importance to the Sikh community.
Another location that provided something of a home away from home was the Mission to Seafarers building on Vancouver’s waterfront. The mission originated in the 1830s with the intent of offering mariners a place on land in which to touch base with distant family members. As a seafaring nation, the Filipino community still make up a large percentage of ship workers. In Joella Cabalu’s Ode to a Seafaring People, spoken word artist Sol Diana gives voice to the shift from traditional oceanic navigation to enormous steel freighters loaded with goods and bound for foreign ports.
Language also finds a home in Banchi Hanuse’s Nuxalk Radio. The Nuxalk Village of Q’umk’uts is served by one of the only radio stations in the world that offers news, sports and weather in the Nuxalkmc language. In addition to the regular information broadcasts, there’s open mic night and radio bingo.
Travelling across B.C., it’s not uncommon to see some structure off in the distance and wonder, what is that place? The films in Behind the Façade answer some of these questions, but also raise others. Hopefully there will be more films to peel back the surface and uncover the stories that lie underneath.
Read more: Indigenous, BC Politics, Film
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