Cascadia International Women's Film Festival


The Cascadia International Women's Film Festival takes place at venues across Bellingham April 25-28, and then most of the films will stream online for purchase May 2-11. Film directors from around the world will be featured.

Women’s film festival feature shines light on Canada’s infamous residential schools

An upcoming film festival in Bellingham will show a powerful new documentary about the intergenerational trauma inflicted on Indigenous families by Canada’s former residential school system.

The Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival will feature the U.S. premiere of “WaaPaKe” (Tomorrow) during its opening night program on Thursday, April 25. The documentary, a National Film Board of Canada production directed by Jules Arita Koostachin, explores the harmful legacy of Canada’s residential schools, which were funded by the government and administered by churches to isolate Indigenous children from their traditions and assimilate them into the dominant settler culture.

In existence for about a century until the 1990s, Canada’s residential schools stripped Indigenous youth of their heritage and exposed them to physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition and disease. In addition to the cultural genocide that occurred, thousands of children also died while in their care and were buried in unmarked graves on school grounds. Those who survived often suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide or other negative effects.

But rather than being a dense documentary full of facts and figures, “WaaPaKe” takes a creative and deeply personal approach, examining Koostachin’s own family and how it has been, and still is, affected by residential schools. Interspersing photographs, collage and animation, Koostachin interviews her mother, a residential school survivor, as well as her son Asivak and other Indigenous voices. There are references to abuse and addiction, but the film also explores subtle manifestations such as the silence and lack of affection shown by some survivors to their own kids.

“There’s definitely different impacts of trauma that our community is still dealing with,” Koostachin told The Northern Light. “There’s a lack of communication. There’s the fact that, as I was growing up, my mother was dealing with a lot of her own stuff without support and probably not making the best choices. When you are in survival mode, you are thinking about the present only. You’re in a chaotic state, dealing with things as they come. So the trauma comes out in different ways and forms.”

While there are now more resources for Indigenous people to share their experiences and heal from the pain, Koostachin said much more needs to be done to overcome this dark chapter in Canadian history, including reforming the educational, medical and penal systems.

“There’s so much stuff,” she said. “We need more education and awareness and humanization. Not seeing us as others, but seeing that we feel and experience things and that there was a lot of injustice to our people.”

Koostachin said it felt natural to turn the camera onto herself and her family. “For me, I have always been taught that you should start with your own story first without telling the story of others,” she said. “With my mom, she was just ready to talk and trusted me and I don’t know how much she would have shared if someone outside our family interviewed her. Being part of a family, there is trust there. We put a lot of things on the table that we didn’t necessarily talk about before. The healing has begun because we are not suppressing some of that stuff.”

“WaaPaKe” also includes interviews with Indigenous elders including Joseph Dandurand of the Kwantlen First Nation and Maisie Smith of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. The film was made by a majority-Indigenous crew, who created a culturally safe environment on set. This included having a native counselor on call and starting each day with the burning and wafting of sage, sweetgrass and other medicines, a tradition known as smudging.

“When you have an Indigenous crew, most people have their own story or experience with residential schools or racism or discrimination,” Koostachin said. “We were very aware that crew members could be triggered by the content, which is why we implemented Indigenous storytelling protocols.”

Koostachin acknowledges that “WaaPaKe” only scratches the surface of residential schools, but this is intentional. “What I do like about my methodology is not having to do that educational work for the audience,” she said. She assumes viewers are at least somewhat familiar with the history, and hopes her film will inspire them to educate themselves further. “I feel like there’s enough scholarship and film out there for settler-Canadians to do that work themselves.”

For Koostachin personally, intergenerational trauma ultimately “means carrying the weight of my mother’s and grandmother’s trauma,” she said. “The central question I had while making the film is, ‘Who am I without our trauma? What does that look like if I don’t have to carry that weight?’”

Perhaps her burden will never completely go away. But she has hope that future generations will finally be liberated from this trauma. It’s a sentiment reflected in the title of her film, the Cree word for “tomorrow.”

“With this particular film, it’s timely in terms of speaking to the next generation,” Koostachin said. “We need to have these conversations, and film is a great way to do that.”

The Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival runs April 25-28 in Bellingham. In addition to film screenings, it features workshops, panel discussions, social events and, for the first time, an art exhibit. For more information and tickets, visit

What to expect: Cascadia International Women's Film Festival

Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival is returning to Bellingham for a weekend of celebrating female filmmakers. The festival will bring a variety of events, from the U.S. premiere of “WaaPaKe,” a film about the lasting impact of Canada’s residential schools, to an evening discussion with “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke.

The festival takes place at venues across Bellingham April 25-28, and then most of the films will stream online for purchase May 2-11. Film directors from around the world will be featured.

“We have more features this year than we’ve ever had and we have more premiere showings,” said Cheryl Crooks, festival director and co-founder. “There are so many things happening this year. We think it’s going to be one of the best festivals we’ve had yet.”

The festival will open Thursday night with the premiere of director Jules Koostachin’s “WaaPaKe” at Pickford Film Center, followed by a moderated discussion with Koostachin. “WaaPaKe” explores the intergenerational trauma inflicted on Indigenous people by Canadian residential schools, told through the story of Koostachin’s family and others.

The weekend will be filled with a red carpet opening party, movie screenings, panel discussions, and opportunities to talk with the directors. Hardwicke will give a Friday evening presentation at Mount Baker Theatre, with a meet-and-greet reception following. Hardwicke’s “Miss You Already” and “Twilight” will be screened at the Pickford, while other films in the festival include “Preconceived,” a documentary about anti-abortion clinics, and “The Cowboy and the Queen,” about a California horse trainer who befriended Queen Elizabeth II.

There will also be a script studio, free and open to the public, on Sunday morning. Among script studio panelists is Mary Lou Belli, a two-time Emmy-winning director and author.

The first Shirley Jo Finney Award will be presented at the festival in memory of the late Cascadia board member and theater director.

Also new this year is an art exhibit highlighting women’s experiences on display at Dakota Gallery. The exhibit, titled “Women Rising: Expanding Visions and Diverse Perspectives” will run until May 25.

For more information, visit


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here