It’s likely that Alanis Obomsawin would find it inappropriate to be called a legend. No doubt she’d prefer to be called a mother to her people or a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights. But that’s selling her short.
For more than 50 years, she has made gloriously challenging films, sung beautiful songs and spoken truthfully about First Nations peoples—their trials and indomitable spirit. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) has hired greats over the years—one thinks of the pioneering animator Norman McLaren; the incisive writer with the whisky-powered voice, Donald Brittain; the skilled editor/producer and above all feminist Kathleen Shannon; the profound Quebec idealist Pierre Perrault—and in that heady crew must be placed Alanis.
Imagine this: a young, gifted and beautiful “Indian,” as they would have called her then, is brought in by the NFB to represent of benign representation, learning all the tools of doc making and forcing herself into the fray as a filmmaker. Immediately, she makes great films: the lovely Christmas Moose Factory (1971), the impossibly moving Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986), the prescient tale of the homeless, No Address (1988). (Read about Obomsawin’s early career in ‘The Long Walk of Alanis Obomsawin.’)
When the Oka crisis, a dispute between Mohawk peoples, who insisted on the sacredness of their tribe’s burial grounds, and Quebecois, who wanted to build a golf course up on them, erupted into violence in the summer of 1990, Alanis Obomsawin was there to document it. Her film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993) went on to win multiple awards include TIFF’s and VIFF’s best Canadian feature prizes. It was followed by three other films on the Oka crisis: My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995), Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man (1997) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000).
While events at Oka were playing out during that eventful summer, I was able to get Alanis to come to the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto to let people know about what was happening in Quebec. We presented a lengthy clip reel of her work and then Alanis showed footage
of Oka. People were shocked by what they saw—and impressed by her courage in putting herself in the frontlines of the dispute. Alanis gave a concert for children that weekend, which was very important to her.
A month before the Harbourfront tribute and just before the Oka crisis, I worked with Alanis and an editor to put together a highlight reel of her past work. This was the old days: we were working on a Steenbeck editing machine with 16mm film. We’d be watching films like No Address and Richard Cardinal and Alanis would point out someone in the background of the shot. “He’s been missing for three years,” Alanis would say, or “she has two children now.” I realised how much her people meant to her and the level of responsibility she embraced when she made her films.
After her Oka quartet Alanis went on to make many forceful, engaging documentaries, but they were all one-offs, until she found a new theme: the human rights of Indigenous children, and the fight to ensure that they receive proper education, sustenance and health care. Three films on this subject have been released up to now, with a fifth to come.
The fourth film is We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, and it will play at every major Canadian festival this fall. It concentrates on the court challenge launched by Cindy Blackstock of the Children’s Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations, which charged the federal government with systemically discriminating against First Nations children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere in the country.
While the Respondents (aka the Crown) fought the charge, making specious arguments comparing federal versus provincial funding for children in reservations, they ignored the basic issue of human rights and whether First Nations peoples were being accorded their proper recognition as the initial occupants of the land.
The landmark case, which got underway in 2007 and was concluded in January 2016 — after several attempts by the federal government to have the case dismissed — determined that the on-reserve child welfare system receives up to 38% less funding than elsewhere in the country. The court concluded that this denied services and “created various adverse impacts for many First Nations children and families living on reserves.”
I talked to Alanis Obomsawin about the film that documents the case. —MARC GLASSMAN
Alanis: Alanis Obomsawin
POV: Marc Glassman
POV: Your new film, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, covers the landmark court case where the federal government had to decide whether the human rights of children on the reserves were—and always had been—violated. The leading figure in the case was Cindy Blackstock from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, working in tandem with the Assembly of First Nations [AFN]. What was it like working with her?
Alanis: I tell you, it was so rich to have her; she was so clear in all of her statements. I have never in my life met a person that strong. You know, I come from way back in the ’60s. I sat in courtrooms mainly out west back then, and I used to sit next to a person from what at the time they called les droits de l’homme, and we’d watch. You’d see line-ups of men—some women too, but mainly men—all Indians. Somebody from the Court would read, “You are accused of…” blah, blah, blah, blah, and the defendants would each say, “Guilty.” “Guilty.” “Guilty.” And it was, “Guilty,” or you go to prison or you pay the fine. One after the other; they had no voice at all. I remember sitting there and I had a lump in my throat the whole time. You couldn’t believe it—you would see prejudice in your everyday life, but when you’re sitting in the courtroom and you see it from the judge, from the lawyers…our people were not respected at all, in any way.
So for me, at my age, to have been a witness to that, and now to be able to document what went on in the courtroom during the case for the children’s human rights—and to see our own people being heard and respected—is the greatest gift that I could ever have had. For me it’s just so different, when I think back over all those years. What I see is the respect and the strength of the people and the capability of being able to defend yourself and being heard. I think if I were to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel as bad as I would have had it been in the ’60s. I’m just so impressed with the progress that has been made. It comes from all of the people who have been fighting everywhere, in every province, for something they believe in—their rights, their dignity.
POV: Can you tell me more about Cindy Blackstock?
Alanis: She’s so honest. Cindy will stand up to the end, no matter what happens. She stands there like a stone. I tell you, I’ve been so impressed by her. I think we are so enriched to have a person like her in our lifetime. The Respondents [who opposed the Caring Society and AFN] sometimes would try to take away her dignity, in the way they made statements about her or the way they put their questions, but her face wouldn’t even change. There would be no feeling of indignity or losing—never. I thought, “Man, this is quite a gift to have this woman.”
POV: What impact has she had on your filmmaking?
Alanis: Since I’ve met her, I’ve finished four films. I’ve been working on five films at the same time. Three of them are out — The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012), Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013) and Trick or Treaty? (2014) — and We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice is the fourth one. I’m working on Norway House, which will be the fifth film. This quintet of films has come about because of my interest in education and children. Obviously, Cindy is number one in doing things for children and helping out in every possible way. That’s why I telephoned her to begin with, and wanted to meet with her. At the time, I was concerned with Shannen Koostachin’s campaign for better education for our young people, fighting for her school at Attawapiskat and others across the country. Once I was there, I saw there was a crisis in Attawapiskat about the lodgings. It was so bad that I temporarily left the film about Shannen and shot one about that situation, which is called The People of the Kattawapiskak River.
POV: A very emotional film.
Alanis: The film was very helpful for the people; that’s the main thing. After that, I went back to Shannen’s film, which is Hi-Ho Mistahey! Soon after, I made Trick or Treaty?, which started off because of the Idle No More movement, and had its beginnings at Attawapiskat with Chief Theresa Spence. Young people were involved, marching on Ottawa from Ontario and Quebec. When Norway House is finished, the Film Board is going to make a box set of the five films together, which will be great, especially for education.
POV: Can we go back to Cindy Blackstock? In a way, she motivates We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice.
Alanis: Yeah, she started the whole thing. It was her who really fought for the children. She lost a lot over it, because overnight the government stopped all of the grant money for her organisation, but that didn’t change her. She relies on the good-hearted people who help her out, and I guess foundations, but she’s not getting the usual money to function from the government.
POV: Were you surprised to discover that she was being investigated by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs?
Alanis: No. What was difficult was how they tried to ridicule her about it, saying it wasn’t true, and not allowing her in that meeting at the minister’s office. It was really terrible for her—to stand there and take all those insults. How do you function and go on the next day when they’ve tried to humiliate you like that? I tell you, she’s a real hero.
POV: You’ve always been interested in education and motherhood and children. Were you surprised by the Crown’s so-called comparator argument, which didn’t address human rights at all—just the nuts and bolts of child care supplied by the federal government as opposed to the provinces?
Alanis: What amazes me all the time is the Crown’s inability to admit that there are problems, and that they’re the ones who are creating them. Sure they can stand there and say, “We spent a lot of money”—but they don’t spend enough for what is needed. Cindy says [in the film], “We were given money for 500 children, but we had 690 children to take care of.” And it’s like that all the time. Sure they give you lots of money, but they don’t cover what needs to be covered. Then they protect themselves by saying, “We spend millions.” They don’t look at the population and ask how many children are there and what are their needs. It’s never judged by that. That’s where the big problem lies.
POV: And the court case addresses that. You show the details in the film and make it clear that, with insufficient funds, it’s impossible to teach the children properly. Are those testimonies in the film to counter what the public thinks?
Alanis: Yes. When the public hears the amount of money they’re spending, they take the side of the government. They say, “Look at all the money we spent,” but nobody looks at the real situation. They should ask “How many children are at the schools and how much money is given for the students to study? Why do they pay teachers such a low salary?” All those things make education difficult. When students go to the city from James Bay, they’re given not quite $800 a month, and with that they have to pay the rent, eat, pay for their books and the bus. Most of them don’t make it because they don’t have enough money to survive in a situation like that, so they end up failing and going back home. If you decide you’re going to help a young person go to university, you have to do it all the way, properly. How are these kids going to go and collect money from someplace else? There’s no place. So it’s a big problem.
POV: And of course they don’t even consider the psychology of it—how difficult it is to go somewhere new, to not have your family around you…
Alanis: Being lonely and afraid, and in a lot of places there is racism, being called names, being made to feel like you don’t belong…all of that is there. At the same time, I have met and seen people very dedicated to trying to help the situation. Sometimes it’s teachers in the community. All kinds of people come along who want to make a difference—who really love the children—and remain there no matter what their hardship is and how low their pay is.
POV: One thing I was very impressed by in the film is how often the Court would allow a traditional Indigenous ritual. That’s amazing to me.
Alanis: For us, it changes everything. You start the day very differently when you have this kind of ceremony. It really puts not just us, but everybody else as well, in a different space in your mind and your heart. Just that alone—it’s like in church. They allow this in church, because otherwise they wouldn’t have very many customers [laughs]. They have finally begun to recognise and respect our people’s customs.
POV: One of the main sections in We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice is dedicated to Jordan’s Principle, a law which was supposed to resolve jurisdictional disputes between the provinces and the federal government. As we see in the film, it was intended to impact on special needs children who are Status Indians.
Alanis: They won, but the money was never even used to help out children who had those kinds of problems.
POV: I was absolutely astonished by that. A unanimous decision, 11 million dollars allocated, and not a penny was used.
Alanis: People have to know that. There were children who were in those kinds of predicaments and had serious special needs and couldn’t get access to the money.
POV: Was it because the Jordan’s Principle law was worded incorrectly? Do you think that was the problem?
Alanis: Well, you see in the film when these women, one of whom is in charge of the money allocated for Jordan’s Principle, admit that they were trying to avoid paying any of the children. Can you imagine? Every time I hear that, I get a sick feeling in my heart.
POV: Did you shoot the footage with Jordan? That was amazing to see the real Jordan.
Alanis: At the hospital? No, that’s a private person who did that. For the next film, I’m going to take pictures of the hospital, which was a scientific centre for his type of problem. [Jordan River Anderson suffered from Carey Fineman Ziter Syndrome, a rare muscular disorder—Editor] I’m trying to find the nurse who was so good to Jordan. You can see her in one of the home movies. They had such love for him. In Norway House there will be a much larger sequence on Jordan’s Principle, because that’s where he comes from.
POV: What about the sequences with the Beadles—the mother and the son, who has many special needs? Did you shoot that?
Alanis: Yeah, we shot that.
POV: That must have been so moving to do. Did you spend much time with them?
Alanis: Two days inside their home. I wanted them to feel comfortable with us being there. As you can see, I think it feels very comfortable for the mother and the son. Their story is so incredible. What institution would have the time, or the people, to love that mother and son, who are so much in need of it? In an institution, they don’t have that kind of time or those kinds of people. To try to take away a child from his mother and to put him in an institution so that he can get free services without her is very hard to digest. She said, “Over my dead body. They’ll never take him out of here.” When you see that kind of love, it’s so rewarding. How can you replace that? You can’t.
POV: The residential schools are such a strong part of the film. Could you talk a bit about Robert Joseph, the elder who had endured so much punishment in the old residential school system?
Alanis: He’s such an incredible man. Everyone was very impressed in the courtroom, obviously. Imagine hearing this kind of story in the courtroom. I’m sure it’s never happened before. His stories are so important for people to understand the reality of that time, but they were told with such dignity and so much love. I sat there and many times I had tears in my eyes listening to him. I thought, “How rich we are,” to watch this man who was there as a witness, representing thousands of people. And the Court was respecting him. They were all listening to him. I will never forget it.
POV: He is, you could say, a victim of the residential schools, except in a way he’s triumphed—he’s gone beyond them.
Alanis: Much higher.
POV: I liked the way that you moved back and forth from Robert Joseph to Dr. Milloy talking about Dr. Peter Bryce, which will give the film audience a sense of how terrible it was in residential schools.
Alanis: I really insisted on having Dr. Bryce in the film. Can you imagine having somebody in 1907, who was so concerned—and loved the children so much—that he lost his job over trying to make known what was wrong in the schools? It was misery for him after he published his report, but he wanted to expose it. That’s why I want to honour Dr. Bryce.
POV: It was great to see his tombstone in the film, and to realise what his life had been like because of the rejected report. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the residential schools defined so clearly. It must have been hard, because that’s such a complicated and terrible story. You structure the film so well—Cindy Blackstock is in it, but she doesn’t overwhelm it. Did you feel that the film had to be about more than just one person?
Alanis: Oh yes. She’s not doing this for herself, you know. I don’t think Cindy would want to be the most important thing, because that wouldn’t be honest either. There were a lot of people who came forward as witnesses, helped by the fact that Cindy was suing the government with the AFN. There are a lot of people who have gone through struggle, fighting and sorrow. To be heard and respected is very important. Of course, Cindy started the whole thing, but all those other people gave their lives to try to make a better place for children in need and for health services and education. It’s very important that as many people as possible are seen and heard, and they keep on working.
POV: You had a huge challenge since you shot the entire trial, which lasted in court for over many, many days, with more than 70 witnesses over nearly five years. How did you break it up to make a film? How did you create your acts?
Alanis: As you can well imagine, we had 300 hours, and we listened to every word more than once. Myself, being there the whole time, I had a story going on in my head. Obviously as you shoot, you edit and you think, “This would be a good ending; this would be a good beginning.” Your mind is constantly busy trying to figure out the story. For me, it was very important to explain what happened, how this case came about, how difficult it was, and the whole struggle to get to the final win.
POV: There was so much material for you to go through. I was impressed, by the way, that you were able to find these key testimonies, when they would get into what in a way is almost minutiae—like what kind of filing cabinet a school or organisation would need, or what kind of computer— it must have taken days. Did you work with an editor?
Alanis: Yes, I have a good editor, Alison Burns, and the two of us listened to every word. I had things in my mind that I would tell her about how I saw the story, and she would enrich it with other ideas. It’s been a very long journey to do this film, but also wonderful in many ways. When I went to the locations to film the actual children, that also was an incredible time.
POV: I hesitate to ask, but what kind of opinion did you form of the Respondent’s main counsel, Jonathan Tarlton, over that time watching him in court?
Alanis: Well, I had a really hard time, because he tried to get me out of there. I don’t want to be unjust, because he was doing his job obviously, but he was very much against me from the beginning.
POV: Why was that?
Alanis: He didn’t want me there because of who I was. APTN was there most of the time. It was there at the tribunal, not at the Court of Appeal all the time, and he didn’t have any problems with them, but he certainly had a lot of problems with me.
POV: What do you hope to accomplish with We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice?
Alanis: A greater understanding. That the public and our own people see that it’s out there, legally. These children have their human rights at last. Dignity, and that people are heard and respected—for me, that’s the main important thing. Nobody can deny this history. It’s right there for all students in the world to look and hear and feel and see what the true story was.
We’re looking to a better place, and I know and think that much progress will come out of this court case, and, I hope, the film. It’s going to be different in the years to come. I know that. Maybe I won’t be here to witness how far we’ll be able to go, but I know that a lot of people are concerned, even at the government level. They are going to do the necessary things to make permanent changes. Whether people are going to be satisfied overnight or not, we’re going toward a better place for our children—where they’ll have better services and a better education. I refuse to think that it’s going to remain the same or go to a worse place. I don’t think so. Not now.