Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher’s short documentary Survivors Rowe focuses on the man that links the film’s three interviewees: Priest Ralph Rowe.
In the 1970s, Rowe came to Angling Lake in Northern Ontario by seaplane to much fanfare from the town, and soon became the public face of the Wapekeka First Nations community’s church. He was seen as an upstanding citizen. He worked to ingratiate himself with the town.
In his spare time, he often asked the First Nations boys who attended his church to spend time with him; the boys, flattered and reverent, obliged.
Over the course of the decade, long enough for Rowe to become one of the boys’ guardian figures, he asked them to participate in increasingly disturbing acts. The first came in the form of a game. The boys would line up against a wall, Rowe would turn off the lights, and then the boys would try to crawl from one wall to the other without Rowe catching them. Rowe often won, which meant instead of tagging them he spanked them or molested them. In the darkness, there were no witnesses.
Upon hearing one of the men detail this game, the quote that begins the movie makes sense: “I don’t remember what he did to me, but sometimes I see it in a nightmare.” The men could feel what he was doing, but they couldn’t pair it with an image.
In the aftermath of this abuse, the affected boys crafted their lives around fear of the church, anger at their parents, violence, suicide, and substance abuse.
The few men Roher interviews for Survivors Rowe (Chris Anderson, Ralph Winter, Joshua Frogg, John Fox, and Mike McKay) have worked to salvage their lives, but they cannot extricate themselves from the events that informed adulthood, no matter whether they write a letter forgiving Rowe, attend Alcoholics Anonymous, serve jail time. They’ve lost brothers, friendships, and childhood memories. Some of the men live virtually fifty metres from where Rowe’s seaplane first landed.
Rowe served a sentence of only five years in jail. When more men stepped forward claiming abuse, the Crown did not lengthen Rowe’s sentence.
Today he lives in British Columbia.
In this documentary, Roher gives these affected men a chance to take the control back from Rowe, and tell their stories. They’re courageous for doing so.