Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger
(Canada, 66 min.)
Dir. Alanis Obomsawin
Programme: Masters (World Premiere)
With 53 films to her name as a director, Alanis Obomsawin isn’t running out steam. Even if she somewhat repeats herself with her latest film, the conversation about the rights of Indigenous children merits repeating. It nevertheless reaffirms her status as one of the most significant filmmakers working today as she continues to use the camera to give voice to communities at the margins.
Obomsawin’s latest doc, Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, completes the recent and significant six-film chapter in her body of work that began with 2012’s The People of Kattawpiskat River and included Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013), Trick or Treaty? (2014), We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice (2016), and Our People Will Be Healed (2018). While the latter film might have offered a stronger finale to the cycle, The Messenger is an empathetic end-note to the series that asks how much longer Indigenous communities must fight to see change. It’s cautiously optimistic about the rights of Indigenous people in Canada, but also brutally frank in its ability to hold the government accountable for putting into practice its promises for reconciliation and change. In other words, Obomsawin’s made the perfect film for Canada to consider in an election year.
The Messenger follows up on the case of Jordan River Anderson, a child from Norway House, Manitoba with severe disabilities who spent much of his five-year life in hospital and died while the provincial and federal governments argued over who was responsible for covering the costs of care due to his Indian status. His death inspired “Jordan’s Principle,” which passed into law unanimously in 2007 and dictates that Indigenous children in need of care should receive treatment and whichever government is deemed to be responsible for their needs will cover the costs later, thus hoping to avoid the unnecessary deaths of children as bureaucrats squabble about medical bills. However, Obomsawin’s film looks at the failures of the Canadian government to enforce Jordan’s Principle. The film puts a human face on two families—that of Jordan River Anderson and that of Noah Buffalo-Jackson—that face daily struggles following the death of the former and the ongoing fight for treatment of the latter.
The case of Jordan’s Principle fuelled We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice as Obomsawin documented the inquires and the tireless devotion of advocates like Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, who fought for Indigenous children to be treated with the same rights and care as all kids in Canada. One doesn’t need to have seen both films to appreciate the pointed argument about the slow road to change Obomsawin makes in her latest film, but it probably helps for context. (The fiercely passionate We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice is also the strongest film of this cycle.) As Obomsawin interviews Blackstock, Noah’s parents Carolyn and Richard Buffalo, and Jordan’s father Ernest (Jordan’s mother, Virginia, died shortly after her son passed), along with other families and colleagues touched by the failures of governmental inaction, the film finds hope in the Andersons’ fight for change. The stories are not easy to hear, but they’re necessary as Obomsawin’s film gives voice to people and communities whose needs rarely make headlines.
Obomsawin’s cameras again go inside the hearings as the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada take on the government’s regrettably lethargic (mis)handling of Jordan’s Principle cases. Obomsawin again brings evidence of Canada’s ongoing struggle to shed its colonial past, particularly when children’s lives and well-being are the subject of discussion and should make the need for change so obvious. However, Obomsawin’s film observes that the tides are changing. The government, the film conveys, is committed to making reconciliation more than just a talking point even if it takes them longer than the ideal speed to get it right—but the pace has human costs, as the Andersons’ story conveys.
Obomsawin’s hopefulness is evident as she twice features the image of a bear in the film—once while visiting Norway House and once at the end as she draws upon myth about protectors and cycles of renewal. While Obomsawin holds Canada’s institutions accountable to improve on their ability to correct a history of injustice, she also ends the story of Jordan River Anderson with the note of optimism it needs. His death is not in vain as the film shows the lives of families who have benefited from Jordan’s Principle and the nation finally roused from its slumber.
TIFF runs Sept. 5 to 15. Visit tiff.net for more information.