How society treats its elders is a question the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated and one that Sarain Fox says society at large should not ignore.
For Indigenous elders who hold generational knowledge for their communities, the threat of COVID-19 has even higher stakes, said Fox, an Anishinaabe artist and activist.
This feeling inspired Fox, who has hosted “Rise” for Viceland and “Future History” on APTN, to document her own family in “Inendi” a short documentary released this month on CBC Gem. The title means “she is absent.”
Fox and her mother visit Auntie Mary Bell, their oldest living relative, and hear her stories of trauma in residential schools and the joy and reclamation that make up their family’s history.
In the weeks after its premiere, Fox dealt with a family loss to COVID-19. In the midst of preparing to give birth to her first child, reflecting on the film and this year, Fox spoke with the Star about how she is trying to continue the storytelling her ancestors have shared for generations.
How did Auntie Mary react when you proposed a documentary?
This is something that my Auntie Mary had actually been asking me for quite a while. She’s one of the only family members I have that has cable. So, she literally sees everything that I do, which is kind of rare. A couple years ago, she started saying little comments, like, ‘when are you going to tell your family story?’ (When I told her) she was really excited. And nervous, of course, but really excited to have the opportunity to be heard.
Auntie Mary also participated and shared her story with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What are your thoughts on how this documentary and that initiative relate?
It’s not lost on me that the doc premiered a week before the five-year anniversary of that report and the final TRC event. I think that the country has been really focused on reconciliation, and reconciliation can’t happen without truth. I think we need more truth. We need more Indigenous people telling their own stories, we need to hear it directly from them. And so this is my auntie sharing her truth.
I think that it’s part of her healing process, because all of her trauma, all of the schooling was designed to silence her. Now she gets to have control over her own narrative. And I can’t imagine what that feels like at her age after everything she’s been through.
Did making “Inendi” reveal anything new to you about Auntie Mary?
So many things. I already knew she was full of fire and spunk. But I think sometimes we romanticize and idealize our family, our elders, and it’s nice to just see them for who they are and to hear their humanity. And I really heard that, especially in the stories of just learning to drive, finding freedom and finding her first best friend. I think it was the humanity in her story, that universal feeling that really surprised me, because the trauma stuff I was prepared for, it was all the rest that shocked me and made her even more of my hero.
You filmed with your mother as well, so three generations of family. Can you talk about how important elders and particularly matriarchs are to your culture?
Indigenous women were targeted purposefully (by governments) because our communities were often run by women. We were a matriarchal society and more young Indigenous women are standing up. It comes from an urgency to protect what we have, which is that connection to your elders.
I think the really beautiful thing about the pandemic is that it has shed light on how we’ve been treating our elders across all communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. I’m really looking forward to a societal shift in the way that we think about our elders. I like to say knowledge keepers. These are the holders of our legacy and our elders fought for us to be here today.
She’d been asking for you to work on something like this for a while, but why was now the time that made it urgent to tell?
The threat of losing my auntie or not being able to get it done, it became really real during the pandemic The idea that a virus could enter the community and take not just my auntie but all of our elders. I think I felt that responsibility to all the young people. We’re moving into unprecedented unknown times and what can we grasp? What can we hold on to? What can we preserve if everything is threatened?
Do you know any elders or have any family who has passed away during this time?
I just lost an auntie to COVID-19 last week. She lived in Detroit, Auntie Linda. And that was the first direct family loss due to COVID. There’s no funeral. There’s no gathering. There’s no way to really let go. It was a alarming experience for me, but more so my auntie and my mom.
Have you been able to modify the ways that you would normally honour her, considering the restrictions right now?
Traditionally, we have fires. So we start a fire when someone leaves and that fire burns for several days. I have noticed a few times in our communities now that those fires are happening at our own homes. I love this idea of collective ceremony or collective honouring that’s done individually across maybe a whole country. And I think there’s a lesson to be learned about continuing to carry on and holding space for everyone, even from your own centrefire.
You’re about to have your first child. How did becoming a mother influence you?
I can’t imagine my first-born not meeting my auntie and that’s still my reality each day as my pregnancy comes to an end. I think about the reality of not being able to put my first-born in her arms. Along with that is the real reality and truth that my children probably won’t get to know Auntie in the way that I got to. So preserving her stories, having this tangible piece of legacy and tradition that’s captured, I think became so valuable and necessary.
I come from a really traditional background. So even the idea of using film to document stories or to talk about ceremony or the loss within Indigenous culture, it comes with a lot of risks. I’m always walking into worlds trying to figure out what is meant to be captured and held onto and what are we meant to just pass down orally and through our songs and stories.
Our young people deserve to have access. And right now film and television and social media is a really amazing tool to give our young people and future generations access to our elders who they might otherwise not have had.
What kind of legacy are you hoping to leave?
For me, I’m just interested in having done good work for my people. And having made a difference for my community. I think, for me, I’m really interested in just continuing to do the work that my ancestors have always done. So I hope that what I can leave behind is a sense that I continued that work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star