'We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice': Interview with director Alanis Obomsawin

Photo: Vancouver International Film Festival

In 2007, the Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada. They argued that services provided to First Nations children on reserves were inferior to those offered to other Canadian children.

In her documentary We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice -- featured at the Vancouver International Film Festival -- Alanis Obomsawin documents the court challenge and gives voice to the childcare workers involved.

rabble.ca spoke with Obomsawin to learn more about her documentary and the hopes she has for Canada.

Why did you want to make this film?

Well, first of all, because it has to do with education and it has to with children and their rights and my whole life, the core of my life, my work, it has to do with education and the rights of our people and this was the reason. 

With that in mind and with what you share through the film, what lessons are there for the Trudeau government -- as they've taken over from the Conservatives -- in terms of reconciliation? 

It's hard to say, like, right now they're starting to, I know that they notice, and are trying to do better, but there's a lot of work to be done. Even the budget for the welfare service at the reserve-level and in the communities -- they admitted it was made in 2015 which was before the decision of the tribunal and so they did not necessarily abide by what the tribunal said -- has to be rectified and we'll see as the months go by what they're doing. I have confidence that there will be big changes. 

Speaking of big changes, what specific actions do you hope to see from the government moving forward? 

The main thing, what's most important, is that the services and the way that they are now is not correct. The people themselves who are Indigenous people and are in charge of different organizations know how it should be done. So it has to be governed by our own people.

That's the main thing and then of course there's the money aspect of it also. They have to stop obliging the people to go by the rules of the government and the province, which does not work. So that has to be changed and then we'll see.

I really have great confidence that it will happen because I think, over the years, Canadians were very much unaware of the real story and the history of our people.  Now it's starting to be more known, and people are horrified when they realize what the truth is. 

When you say that the services aren't correct, can you elaborate on that? What are the biggest issues you see?

The biggest issue is that to have proper services, equal to what they have in the province, the children have to be removed and that's where the biggest problem is. In a lot of cases children could remain in their families and they could help them in their families to heal or to have access to services, instead of having to remove the child to get the services. 

As you mentioned, more and more Canadians are becoming aware of the situation and the history in our country. With that in mind, what can all of us as Canadians learn and strive towards moving forward? 

I think that everybody has a responsibility and everybody can do something. If Canadians really begin to know what the real story is and if they want to see justice they should write to their local minister and member of Parliament about their views and explain that this is unjust and that it should not be a part of Canadian history. This makes a big difference, because believe me, in government they do not like to get bunches of letters like that because it proves they are not doing their job. 

What would you say is the general reaction that you get from viewers after they see the film?

There are a lot of people that are appalled to know the situation, the history and the issue of removing children has to stop. Like when the government makes a statement they say, "oh we spend millions and millions of dollars." So the moment they hear the amount of money, the public (up until now) responds, "oh my god all this money they're spending on Indians and they're always complaining." But they don't know what the bloody real story is. 

Like one of the best examples in the film is when Cindy Blackstock is explaining that she was working at one time for a nation and they never had enough money. She says they were serving 790 children and the budget was money for 500 children. That gives you an example of how it is.

So when they mention the amount of money they gave for 500 children, people who don't know anything say "oh my god, look at all that money and they're still not happy." People have to know exactly the way they do this. When people really find out what it is like they're just appalled. 

Our children at the reserve level don't get the same services or the same amount of money as the rest of the children in Canada, which is something people were not aware of. They think it's the same and it's not. So all those issues are revealed in this film and not only that, but the people who are in charge of these organizations -- who are Indigenous -- really tell what it is like and how it should be done. They're forced to do it the way that the outsider -- like the government -- wants. They tell them that this is the way they're going to work and these are the tools they're going to get and this is the money they're getting. 

They don't care who's starving or who's getting the services or if a child is in need and doesn't get the proper services and dies over it. They don't know that. So that's how it is. 

Thank you for sharing those thoughts. Is there anything else you want to add?

I think the main thing for me is I have more than hope. I feel very different than many years before. I've seen a lot of changes, and for this education and health services we'll never stop until it is right.

The educational system has been so bad all around Canada for 150 years. When they were teaching the history of Canada, it was "oh these awful savages and the language they speak is Satan's language and they went around scalping the poor, wonderful white people who came over."

This was the history -- the official history. Canadians, from one generation after the other, have learned that we were supposed to be inferior and they were superior and they treated us that way. They didn't know any better because they even thought that Indians were and are getting more money than anybody else and getting better services than anybody else which is totally false.

So now they have to learn what the real situation is and I think in general Canadians want to see justice done.  

To learn more about the film, visit VIFF's website, or attend the viewing on Oct. 13.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Photo: Vancouver International Film Festival

Alyse Kotyk is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice and storytelling. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and is excited by media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer. She was rabble's 2015-16 news intern.

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