“Children have to hear another story”: Alanis Obomsawin, documentary filmmaker

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on November 13, 2018

Alanis Obomsawin spoke in Fredericton on Oct. 24, 2018. Photo by Shanthi Bell.

Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin was in New Brunswick on Oct. 24, 2018 to present her film Trick or Treaty? as part of the Indigenous Film Series held by St. Thomas University’s Senate Committee on Reconciliation.

Obomsawin was introduced by film scholar André Loiselle, Dean of Humanities at St. Thomas University (STU). Loiselle highlighted Obomsawin’s many accomplishments, recognitions, and prize-winning films and initiated a conversation with the filmmaker after the screening.

Looking back on her 51 films and her beginnings as an activist, Obomsawin said: “My battle was education.” She had started reading a lot as a teenager and she “was so angry about what was being taught. Books were designed to create hate against our people. The children have to hear another story.” This was how Obomsawin became involved in documentary film: “I came in with a different story.”

Obomsawin was invited to join the National Film Board in 1967. When she started to make films, one of her first battles was to have voiceover for people who couldn’t read English or French. Obomsawin insisted on the voiceover being done by Indigenous people from the community but the union insisted that only their members could do voiceover. Obomsawin went to see the president of the union and demanded that the regulations be changed: “if you are intimidated and afraid, you’re finished. Everything is possible. Don’t give up.”

The documentary she presented, Trick or Treaty?, from 2014, is especially concerned with Treaty 9 concerning the Cree and Ojibwa people of northern Ontario. The film describes how the signatories were not correctly informed of the meaning of the treaties by those explaining the treaty and requesting their signatures in 1905. The film also covers the Idle No More Movement, the 6-week hunger strike by former chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation Theresa Spence (2012-2013) as well as the 2-month Journey of Nishiyuu by 6 youths from the Whapmagoostui First Nation, from the northernmost Cree village in Québec on Hudson’s Bay to Parliament Hill in 2013.

For Obomsawin, “Canadians have no clue, they think [the Treaty] has no meaning. It’s the contrary for our people.” Discussion of Treaty 9 were ongoing at the time she made the film and people were able to get a clear picture of the Treaty through a conference she filmed in Moose Factory by a noted treaty historian John Long, author of Treaty No. 9: Making the Agreement to Share the Land in Far Northern Ontario in 1905. Long’s conferences were crucial “for teaching and making people understand how things were done, [through] cheating and lying”.

Confidently, Obomsawin declared: “I won’t be here but I’m sure there will be justice” for Treaty 9 peoples, through its renegotiation. She sees the current context as positive and got emotional when describing it to the public: “I’m very happy. We are going somewhere where we’ve never been before. More and more our people are respected. Canadians want to see justice to our people. Everywhere in Canada there’s such interest. Young people are doing incredible things. If ever there was a time for our young people, it’s now. It’s a very special time.”

The last 6 films directed and written by Obomsawin have continuity because they are centered around James Bay. After Indigenous people became Canadian citizens in 1960, an office opened and people were encouraged to write to identify their territory. The government wanted to try to renew the treaties, and some land was returned to the people, along with financial incentives. This was the beginnings of renegotiation and, for Obomsawin, “In some places it was done quite well and in others not.”

Reflective of Obomsawin’s outlook, her recent film, Our People Will Be Healed (2017) is more optimistic. This film features the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre in Northern Manitoba as a model for all Indigenous learning places. There, she filmed 500 children playing the violin: “The mind and the heart of the people [are] in this 12-year-old school. Children are so happy there.”

Obomsawin also interviewed the principal of the school who was making innovative change and told her: “We’re lucky if we have 15 people graduating. We made a new rule, we added buses at 9 and 9:30 which has made a significant change in the number of students graduating. We prefer to have them late than not have them at all.”

During the discussion, Obomsawin was asked about the two films she made about New Brunswick’s Indigenous communities.

Incident at Restigouche was about the raids on the Listuguj Mi’kmaq First Nation by Quebec police to impose restrictions on Indigenous fishermen. When she made the film, Obomsawin “was very angry because the Minister treated the Mi’kmaq very poorly.” She added: “I had a hard time making that film. I was fighting the whole time. It was a calvary to make.” It was filmed in 1981 and came out three years later.

The film contains a famous scene where Obomsawin grills then Quebec Minister of Fisheries Daniel Lessard who had ordered the raids. Obomsawin joked that “The Minister had the courage to come” be interviewed, despite the fact that he had been forewarned about her methods.

Obomsawin has a frank approach when interviewing politicians, “If they’re insulting our people, I’m going to show them how I feel.” She added: “I’ve been at it for fifty years. At the beginning it was very different.” Relaying anecdotes from her beginnings doing research for a film, she said “the minute it was an Indigenous person, [federal bureaucrats] made things very difficult.” Obomsawin believes that would never happen today.

On March 13, Obomsawin’s film “Is the Crown at War with Us?” (2002) will be screened by the Indigenization committee at STU. It was made about the Esgenoopetitj First Nation (Burnt Church) and features federal officials’ confrontations with fishermen. For the director, racism was a huge obstacle: “It was a difficult film to make in terms of the reaction of the non-Indigenous people towards the Indigenous people. It was tough to see.” Again, Obomsawin mentioned the larger context: “you have to deal with the government’s oppressive laws. It’s important to document these stories because they are history.”

Obomsawin is currently working on a film about Jordan’s Principle, a new policy named after Jordan River Anderson, a 5-year old boy from Norway House Cree Nation, Manitoba, who passed away from a rare medical disorder. This new policy would require that Indigenous children have access to public services considering their distinct cultural needs and the historical drawbacks linked to colonization, in order to prevent discrimination. Obomsawin has been working on this film since 2010 and said: “it’s fantastic! It’s more than encouraging!” She added that she sees this Principle as a very positive change: “In general there’s a good feeling between other nations and ours.”

Loiselle noted that the Trick or Treaty? story shifted when music began to be included. Obomsawin noted that music and song is really a central part of her peoples’ life: “music really goes to the heart of people. It’s so much easier to receive the story.” Along with her recognition as a documentary filmmaker, she has also been a singer since the sixties: “I never stopped singing but I wasn’t doing concerts.” Her album Bush Lady has had a long journey: it was written in 1960, recorded in 1985, rerecorded in 1988 and remastered and rereleased in 2018. Last year, Obomsawin sang in a festival in Holland at the age of 85 and, in September 2018, she sang in Montreal.

Obomsawin is from Odanak, Quebec, part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, about halfway between Montreal and Quebec on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River. On the album, Obomsawin sang a song about Odanak, and specifically about taking care of the place, about strangers coming and Indigenous people losing their land, a warning told by a beaver to a woman washing clothes at the river.

The STU Indigenous Film Series continues on Nov. 14th with the film Forgotten Warriors introduced by former Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, Graydon Nicholas. The film will be shown at 4pm in Kinsella Auditorium on STU Campus.

Sophie M. Lavoie writes on arts and culture and is a editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op. 

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