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Alanis Obomsawin's documentaries chronicle Indigenous life and resistance

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How do you do justice to a body of work that spans 50 years? Work that exposes systemic racism, government deceptions, double standards, illegal expropriation of sacred burial lands, a lack of political will to implement bills unanimously passed by members of the House of Commons, and the federal government's non-compliance with orders issued by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal? 

You begin by speaking with the creator of these important works.

Alanis Obomsawin is a member of the Abenaki Nation whose traditional lands included parts of southeastern Quebec and northern New England. She is, without a doubt, Canada’s foremost documentary filmmaker.

Obomsawin has introduced Canadians to the untenable conditions First Nations people have endured since colonization. She has also successfully deconstructed stereotypes perpetuated by various governments intent on the systematic, silent, and secretive genocide of First Nations people living in Canada.

At 84 years old, Obomsawin isn’t slowing down. In fact, she is about to launch her 50th film for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), Norway House Cree Nation. Norway House is one of the largest First Nation communities in Manitoba. Located 456 kilometers north of Winnipeg the community grew from a Hudson’s Bay fur-trading post near the outlet of Lake Winnipeg. Norway House was named for the Norwegian labourers who constructed the post's buildings.

Obomsawin's film will focus on her favourite subject, children. In particular, the film will revisit the children of Norway House Cree Nation to see if Jordan’s Principle has been implemented following a landmark decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

Jordan River Anderson was a First Nations child from Norway House Cree Nation born with complex medical needs. While the provincial and federal governments disputed who should pay for Jordan's home care, Jordan died in hospital at the age of five. He never got to see his home.

Jordan's Principle was a private members motion that unanimously passed in the House of Commons on December 12, 2007. Jordan's Principle established that where intergovernmental disputes over payment for services exist, the level of government that has first contact assumes all costs of child services and continues to pay them until a settlement regarding jurisdictional disputes is reached. This puts the child first and ensures that they get necessary health services in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, the federal government has chosen to continue its discriminatory practices under the guise of implementing Jordan’s Rule.

On January 26, 2016 as part of a larger decision, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ordered the federal government to fully implement Jordan’s Principle. The federal government continues to limit the application of Jordan’s Principle to children living on reserve with a disability or short-term condition. This is unacceptable, because the services mandated by Jordan’s Principle and upheld by the tribunal are services that are readily available to children throughout Canada. These are typical of the injustices First Nations people face.

These racial discriminations motivate Obomsawin to continue her work.

Obomsawin began her career as a singer-songwriter and storyteller performing across Canada, the U.S., and Europe. In 1961 Obomsawin was singing at a prison when it came to her attention that an astonishing 68% of the inmate population was Indigenous. That prompted Obomsawin to go on a tour of jails.

She then began going into court rooms to watch how First Nations, Metis and Inuit men and women were treated by the judicial system. Obomsawin found the experience "Horrifying, because all I was hearing was guilty, guilty, guilty. There was disrespect towards Indigenous people from duty counsel, the crown and judges. Indigenous people were expected to just shut up and accept that they were going to be found guilty because the decision had been made based on the fact that they were Indigenous."

These experiences led Obomsawin to begin filming what was happening inside courtrooms. Over the next few decades Obomsawin has seen positive changes to the way Indigenous people are treated in court and by the judicial system. These changes were captured in her documentary We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice (WCMTSMT).

As Obomsawin observes, "Today there is respect in court. This is a great gift and we are going to a better place."

In 2007, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada based on Section 5 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The complaint accused the federal government of knowingly underfunding family and child support services on First Nations reserves creating inequalities based solely on the children’s origins.

Obomsawin filmed the court proceedings that took place in front of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. During the nine years the case was argued, the federal government made multiple attempts to have the complaint dismissed. During that time it was also discovered the Harper government withheld over 90,000 key documents and investigated Dr. Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the FNCFCS and chief witness for the applicants.

Eventually, the tribunal heard 72 days of testimony which ended October 24, 2015. On January 26, 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled the Canadian government discriminates against First Nations children by inequitably funding child welfare services and by failing to fully implement Jordan's Principle. Obomsawin is currently working on a documentary that follows the outcome of WCMTSMT because, as she stated in a previous interview with me about this film, "You win, but what do you win?"

Her enthusiasm and determination are profound. Obomsawin says, "Documentary making is very exciting. I'm still as excited as when I made the first film. I still have a passion for it. And, these documentaries are a history now for education."

Christmas at Moose Factory (1971) was Obomsawin’s first film for the NFB. The 13 minute animation looks at Christmas time in Moose Factory through the eyes of First Nations children living on James Bay. Narrated by a young girl, the film uses a series of children's crayon drawings to give viewers exclusive insight into incidents big and small that impact the children’s lives at Christmas time in this remote Ontario community.

Obomsawin filmed this documentary over several years from 1967/8 and again in 1969. Between 1968 and 1969 Obomsawin she also created educational packages that included seven film strips and records for use by teachers. The educational kits were available in English, French and Atikamekw. The Atijameque Nation is in northern Quebec.

Material covered included the history of the community of people and their language; moose calling; snow shoe making; canoe making; wooden puzzle and game making; and included ten historical photos. The kits were designed to help undo some of the damage caused by the loss of language and culture enforced by the residential school system.

Obomsawin developed an important protocol for establishing a relationship with the participants in her documentaries. "I meet people from the community and do interviews without the camera, just sound. My documentaries are survival stories," she says. "These stories are so important and very special. Then, I document the events as they are happening."

In Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), Obomsawin chronicled the events that would eventually become known throughout mainstream Canada as the 1990 Oka crisis. This is the only documentary where Obomsawin didn't have time to interview individuals beforehand.

Instead, Obomsawin spent 78 days and nights filming the armed stand-off between the Mohawks, the Quebec police and the Canadian army. This powerful piece of living history shows the truth faced by First Nations women, men and children behind the barricades and the government's unashamed attempts to propagandize and manipulate public opinion all in the name of expanding a golf course onto sacred burial land.

It is ironic that the very culture that Canada tried so hard to eradicate not only thrives today, but is ripe for cultural appropriation by those very same colonizers. According to Obomsawin, "Appropriation is incredible. People do things. People force people to do things, even change their names. This is a revolutionary time. People are going back to who they were. It was the appropriation of people's minds, who they are that I have been fighting against for many, many years.

"Documentaries let people speak for themselves. It's every aspect of their life. This becomes normal. Drugs and alcohol won't help. The young need to go back to themselves, their culture and way of life. Young people make the big changes. Young people have gone through bad things but are so much stronger. There is a strong movement going on with young people turning back from suicide and they deserve a life. They're returning to traditions and more and more this is how young people are talking."

Obomsawin sees the value in using documentaries in mainstream education to challenge the falsehoods and misrepresentations that have traditionally filled Canadian history books. According to Obomsawin, "Documentaries are wonderful for educating. Education needs to include real history and respecting the Nations. Classroom kids have a better understanding today of true history, especially in Ontario."

When asked what role documentaries play in creating truthful reconciliation, Obomsawin had this to say. "Documentaries play a valuable role in truthful reconciliation as a record of history and how lives go to a better place -- a place of decolonization and it’s important to have a place like that."

Obomsawin is optimistic for the future, "I am more than hopeful. It’s wonderful where we are going. Many of our people are healing and the country is listening which is very new. I believe there are always more good people than bad."

To get a better understanding of Indigenous history I recommend starting with these Obomsawin documentaries:

1. Trick or Treaty? (2014)

This 85 minute documentary explains the history and importance of the interpretation of Treaty 9. The 1905 agreement signed in Moose Factory was accepted by First Nations because it was a treaty that enabled the two Nations to walk together in peace and prosperity Nation to Nation.

Unfortunately, First Nations leaders were misled and not given a truthful interpretation before signing a document which claims the Nations ceded their rights to all lands and resources. It becomes crystal clear that this was not the intention of First Nations leaders. It's also undeniable that we are all treaty people bound to uphold these agreements.

The film also does a wonderful job of explaining Bill C-45, passed by the Harper government in December 2012, which in turn gave rise to Idle No More and Chief Theresa Spence’s six week hunger strike.

2. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993)

Obomsawin's two hour documentary about what became known as the 1990 Oak crisis in Quebec. This powerful piece of living history shows the danger faced by First Nations people behind the barricades, the attempts by the media to get the truth out to Canadians and the government's role in silencing the media and keeping the truth from mainstream Canada.

3. We Can't Afford to Make the Same Mistake Twice (2016)

During the film's 2 hours and 43 minutes, Obomsawin documents the nine-year legal saga that pitted the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations against the Harper government. At issue was the deplorable quality of health services provided to children and youth on reserve. At the core was Jordan's Principle which states that the government of first contact (either federal or provincial) will assume all costs for a child’s medical care so the child does not suffer unnecessarily while the levels of government decide who will assume the costs.

4. Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013)

 This 99 minute documentary tells the story of Shannen’s Dream, a national campaign to provide equitable access to education in safe and suitable schools for First Nations children. In order to fulfill Shannen's Dream Indigenous students presented their case to the United Nations in Geneva. But, despite recommendations from the UN and the unanimous passing of Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus’s Motion 201 on February 27, 2012 not much has improved for children and youth wanting to be educated on reserve.

5. Christmas at Moose Factory (1971)

This 13 minute animated film of Christmas as a Cree child will bring a smile to your face.

Watch for the release of Norway House Cree Nation in the fall of 2017.

Then, make the time to watch Obomsawin’s 44 remaining documentaries. It is time well spent and these documentaries are a bridge to creating truthful reconciliation between our settler Nation and First Nations, Metis and Inuit Nations.

This article first appeared in the June edition of The Anvil.

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