Robert Louie escaped from the Kootenay Indian School near Cranbrook when he was seven years old. It took him 21 days to make his way, on foot, back to his Lower Kootenay Band home, through the forests and mountains between Cranbrook and Creston.
Meanwhile, a search had been activated to bring him back to the Residential School at St. Eugene Mission, including a pursuit with dogs. But the boy made it back to his home near Creston, back to his traditional upbringing.
After returning to school in Creston, Louie went on to become the first Indigenous person to graduate from Prince Charles Secondary School. He set out on a career in the RCMP, and became the force’s first Indigenous officer. Along the way, he has played an important role in Aboriginal education in British Columbia, and is now respected as a Ktunaxa Elder and Hereditary Chief of the Lower Kootenay Band, a carrier or lore, knowledge and cultural awareness.
The remarkable story of Robert Louie Sr, now in his early 70s, is being told in a new film, which will premiere at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook on Monday, June 20.
The film “Susap: Keeper of Knowledge” is a a joint venture with Community of Creston Arts Council, Yaqan Nukiy People’s Heritage Society, the Province of B.C., and Quinntex Entertainment, the filmmaking company out of Nelson.
Dan Caverly of Quinntex Entertainment, who directed the film, said Robert Louis’s life and career was groundbreaking in many ways for the Ktunaxa people and First Nations in general, as well as significant for Canada as a whole.
Caverly explains that Louie’ grandmother, who spoke only Ktunaxa, had an essential role in raising him. She called him Susap (Joseph, in Ktunaxa) — hence the film’s title.
“He paved the way in a lot of different venues,” Caverly said, in conversation with the Townsman. “He did face a ton of racism, which we demonstrate in the film.
When joining the RCMP, for example, he was told, at the very beginning, he was never going to make it.
“He was told ‘you can try, but you’re not going to make it.’ He just dug in his heels and studied and pushed through. And he became the very first Indigenous [RCMP officer in Canada].”
He was first stationed up in Burns Lake. At one point in his career, he transferred back to Creston to be closer to his mother and grandmother. At the same time, the Lower Kootenay Band invited him to take on a leadership role in the band, particularly regarding the Truth and Reconciliation process and Land Claims.
He became influential in the education system, teaming up with School District 8 to start an aboriginal education program that is now modelled around the province.
Caverly made the decision to dramatize the film through re-enactments.
“It’s a story of challenge, a story of victory,” he said. “How do you portray that to people who haven’t experienced it?
“My whole mantra throughout the whole thing was to tell the story with respect and accuracy, but also with emotion. So that the people who haven’t lived it have more to experience than just a talking head, if you will.”
The production had very little historical or archival material to use, Caverly said — basically just a handful of pictures.
“So how to we make this transcend the screen into the hearts and minds of people. I elected to do that through as many re-enactments as we could, keeping it as real and emotional as possible.”
The story of Louie’s escape from the residential school escape is the stuff of high drama.
“He was only seven, and it took him 21 days from Cranbrook to Creston, all by himself, going through the woods. He snuck out, he tied sheets together, the hounds are after him, he floated down the river in the dark, to keep his scent down, and he just kept going.”
The film’s narrative is non-linear. Caverly saved the drama of the residential school escape to towards the end, as opposed to telling the story chronologically — from point A to point B to point C …
“It was a carefully thought out decision that I hope will keep the audience engaged right to the very end by telling the story in an unpredictable and emotional way,” Caverly said.
“[The film], came to life with the love and respect of elder and hereditary chief Robert Louie Sr, the man who has dedicated his life to his culture and the memories of his traditional teachings,” said Sharon Svanda, with the Creston Arts Council. “Always giving of his time and knowledge to others, this is a tribute to his life.”
The actors featured in “Susap: Keeper of Knowledge” are from the local Ktunaxa community. They include:
• Felix Three Feathers (Yaqan Nukiy) – young Robert
• Lisa Three Feathers (Yaqan Nukiy) – grandma
• Janine Basil (Yaqan Nukiy) – Robert’s mom Isobel
• Jordan Louie (Yaqan Nukiy) – dancer in the film
• Ki Louie (Yaqan Nukiy) – Robert in the canoe
• Alfred Joseph (Akisqnuk) – Robert’s grandfather
“Even with no prior acting experience, Dan was able to draw out the raw natural talent of each individual for a spectacular drama,” Svanda said.
“Susap: Keeper fo Knowledge” premieres at the Key City Theatre on Monday, June 20, at 7 pm. Tickets are $20, aunt available at the box office, or by calling 250-426-7006, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.