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Rights + Justice

Speaking for Ourselves

Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has spent a lifetime calling for a different future. Especially for Indigenous children.

Dorothy Woodend 21 Apr

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

[Editor’s note: This piece includes stories of anti-Indigenous racism and abuse. It may be triggering to some readers.]

Canada’s dark history is projected in full colour at Abenaki filmmaker and activist Alanis Obomsawin’s sprawling new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. From the violence of settler colonialism, to how Indigenous children have been systematically undervalued, to the exploitation and abuse of Indigenous women. But so too is the role of artists creating seismic change.

Amidst the largesse, it’s the smallest things that jump out. And by smallest, I mean the youngest. Children run all the way through the show. Hence the title The Children Have to Hear Another Story. Many of Obomsawin’s feature-length and short films take as their impetus the creative ways in which children contend with monumental challenges.

After moving from her home community of Odanak, Obomsawin started grade school in the small town of Trois-Rivières, Quebec. She was the only Indigenous child in her class and endured beatings and abuse from her fellow students.

Her lifetime of work is shaped by the filmmaker’s own experiences contending with racist violence at the hands of her white classmates, as well as a school curriculum that belittled and insulted her Indigeneity. At the age of 12, she decided to shift the narrative of her life by becoming a storyteller herself, sharing the richness and power of her culture with the world.

“I thought, if the children could hear the stories I hear, maybe they would be behaving differently,” she states in the catalogue introduction to the show. Her idea arguably changed the course of Canadian history.

Now 90, Obomsawin still has the delight and ebullience of a little kid. Her joyful spirit infused the show’s opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery as the filmmaker talked about the many decades of her work on display.

Horses are where Obomsawin’s journey as an artist began. They were among the animals visiting her dreams as a child. “As a little girl, it’s my dreams that saved my life,” she wrote in the exhibition guide. “At least when I was sleeping, nobody was beating me. I had a whole world.”

In her dream world, Obomsawin had hundreds of horses and other creatures to play with and visit. These figures, whether in drawings, films or the many hundreds of homemade toys that Obomsawin has created over the course of her life, possess vividness and febrile energy that shoots out like a force field.

An Indigenous woman on horseback moves towards the right side of the screen. Her long hair blows behind her and she is riding a brown horse. The background is green and blurry due to the motion captured on film.
Still from Alanis Obomsawin’s 1977 film, Mother of Many Children. 16-mm film, 28 min, image courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

The NFB’s only staff filmmaker

The Children Have to Hear Another Story is curated by the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Richard Hill, Smith Jarislowsky (who, as of 2021, stepped into a new role at the gallery as senior curator of Canadian art), and Hila Peg. The show premiered at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2022. Following its time at the VAG, the exhibition will travel to the University of Toronto’s Art Museum and the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal over the next few years.

Organized by decade, beginning in the 1960s and leading up to present day, the result is difficult to take it all in one visit. An exhibition of an artist who works largely in the cinematic medium is something of a challenge in a gallery setting. Watching complex documentaries, with people wandering in and around through the gallery, isn’t the most ideal way to take in a longer work. Luckily many of Obomsawin’s films are available to screen for free online through the National Film Board of Canada.

As the only remaining staff filmmaker at the NFB, Obomsawin’s work is reflective of what an institution like the National Film Board can do. It is always striking to me how many international filmmakers deeply revere the NFB. They admire what it has done and continues to do for filmmakers and audiences, both in Canada and around the world. Many of Obomsawin’s most remarkable documentaries were created with the support of the NFB, although it wasn’t always an easy process.

While making her documentary Incident at Restigouche, internal NFB documents revealed that when Obomsawin requested permission to shoot additional interviews for her film, she was informed by the NFB management that she could not interview white subjects and was ordered to speak only with Indigenous people. This is a particularly painful reality given the nature of the story being documented. A series of raids in June 1981 ordered by then-minister of fisheries Lucien Lessard resulted in the Quebec Provincial Police descending in full riot gear upon the tiny Mi’kmaq village. Ostensibly, the raids were about fishing rights, but it was actually more a demonstration of control and power. After disregarding the dictum about interviews, the fiery exchange with Lessard became a critical part of the final film.

This same conflict between Indigenous sovereignty and provincial authority was at the root of Obomsawin’s most well-known film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. On her way to work one morning, she heard the reports of the blockades being set up by Kanien’kéhaka people over a proposed golf course on their traditional territory. Obomsawin spent months behind the barricades on the Kanien’kéhaka lands near Oka, Quebec. The original plans for a four-day shoot turned into 78 days on the ground, with Obomsawin filming hundreds of hours of footage.

Even decades later, the film is astounding for what it captured about the relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian authorities. After its release in 1993, the film screened around the world, winning more than a dozen awards, including Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival.

A black and white photo of Alanis Obomsawin, an Indigenous woman with long braided hair, sitting onstage and holding a drum in front of a microphone. She is facing the right of the frame.
Alanis Obomsawin at the 1970 Mariposa Rock Festival. Photo courtesy of York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC05824.

Making change count

Over the course of her career, Obomsawin has made 53 films, a staggering number made even more astounding when you consider the time and circumstances of their creation. When she started making work, Indigenous people had only recently gained the right to vote. Indigenous women who married white men automatically lost their status. Residential schools were ongoing.

How much and how little has changed in Canada is the subtext that runs underneath the wealth of film clips, media interviews and archival footage. The material ranges from the smarmy patronizing interviews on CBC television to more troubling clashes with institutional oppression. But throughout her career, Obomsawin retained a singular focus on the experience of younger people, their joys and their suffering.

None are more immediate than the story of Richard Cardinal. At age 17, Cardinal took his own life after being shuttled between 28 different foster homes before he’d reached his teens. He left behind a diary that formed the basis for the film.

Rewatching Obomsawin’s short documentary feature Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child from 1986, I was struck not only by filmmaker’s compassion for the young man at the centre of the story, but also for all of the people who failed to help or didn’t fully understand what to do.

One of the most honest and blunt interviews in the film is Cardinal’s older brother, who stated matter-of-factly that it was only after the teenager’s death that authorities organized a time and place for the Cardinal family to reunite. "What Richard needed most was to go home. His funeral was the best social service that was provided for Richard, because it finally brought his family together." As he rightly points out, if Richard had been able to rejoin his birth family earlier in his life, things might have turned out differently.

The tragedy at the centre of the film had a profound impact on social services and Indigenous people.

The exhibition takes pains to parallel Obomsawin’s work alongside larger and social developments, be it the Oka Crisis or the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. But it is the bedrock compassion and keen sense of justice that children possess that forms the essential animating spirit of the show.

A quality present in the filmmaker’s images of fiery green horses as well as complex and carefully observed films like We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, that details the case filed by the Assembly of First Nations and First Nations Child & Family Caring Society against the federal government to ensure that Indigenous children enjoyed the same rights and privileges as other young people.

Even her earliest work, such as her directorial debut Christmas at Moose Factory, centred the lived experiences — as well as the hopes and dreams — of kids. Composed entirely of drawings by Cree children at a residential school in northern Ontario, Christmas at Moose Factory features the voices of the children living in the facility talking about a wide variety of things, from being scared by a black bear to the gold stars atop Christmas trees.

Obomsawin’s methodology involves recording audio interviews with key participants prior to shooting footage. It is a careful way to build trust and intimacy that ultimately creates deeply resonant work.

In an early interview, she described the particular capacity of non-fiction cinema as both a platform and a place of healing: “Documentary film is the one place that our people can speak for themselves. I feel that the documentaries that I’ve been working on have been very valuable for the people, for our people to look at ourselves… and through that be able to make changes that really count for the future of our children to come.”

‘The Children Have to Hear Another Story’ runs until Aug. 7 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  [Tyee]

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