Before ‘The Messenger’, Revisit Alanis Obomsawin’s Cycle on the Rights of Indigenous Children

Courtesy of the NFB


By Pat Mullen

Alanis Obomsawin comes full circle this September with the premiere of Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Abenaki director’s 53rd film completes her recent chapter of work that focuses on the rights of Indigenous children. The film tells the story of Jordan River Anderson, a young boy from Norway House, Manitoba, who died in hospital while the provincial and federal governments squabbled about who would pay his medical bills. His death inspired “Jordan’s Principle,” an law made in his honour that fights for Indigenous children and connects several films in Obomsawin’s recent chapter. The cycle began with Obomsawin’s 2012 doc The People of the Kattawapiskak River. Before seeing the prolific director’s latest work at TIFF, VIFF, or any of the other festivals at which it screens, catch up on the first films in the cycle to appreciate the scope and significance of Abomsawin’s fight.

Let the TIFF’19 pre-screening begin!

The People of the Kattawapiskak River

Obomsawin won the 2013 Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary at the Canadian Screen Awards for this timely portrait of the people of the Attawapiskat First Nation from the outset of the Idle No More movement. In Obomsawin’s signature mix of journalistic rigour and empathetic storytelling, the doc looks at the lives and faces that don’t make the headlines as Canada watches coverage of Indigenous rights—or, more likely, turns a blind eye to ongoing injustices.

The People of the Kattawapiskak River, Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Hi-Ho Mistahey!

This 2013 film makes a strong companion piece to The Messenger as it 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. The campaign was in memory of Shannen Koostachin, who led a campaign for the rights of youth to a proper education before she was killed in a car accident in 2010. Hi-Ho Mistahey! celebrates the endurance of culture in all that the children and people of Attawapiskat have seen.

Hi-Ho Mistahey!, Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Trick or Treaty?

TIFF finally upgraded Obomsawin to the Masters section when it screened Trick or Treaty? in 2014. The film uses the Idle No More movement to reflect on the historical roots of the systemic inequity that Indigenous communities have faced for too long. Trick or Treaty? takes weaves between the recent events of the Idle No More movement and a historical look at the 1905 agreement Treaty 9, in which First Nations communities signed over their power and their land to the Crown. The historical precedent for Idle No More is troubling, since the movement, as Obomsawin notes, began as a response to the measures of omnibus Bill C-45, which stripped First Nations communities of several rights including access to resources and water. Read the review of Trick or Treaty? here.

Trick or Treaty?, Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice

Arguably the strongest and most significant film in this body of work, and one of Obomsawin’s overall best docs, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice is the one film in the cycle that audiences would benefit most from seeing before catching The Messenger. The film focuses on the case of the Assembly of First Nations and the Child and Family Caring Society of Canada against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada and the fight to have the Canadian government implement Jordan’s Principle after it passed unanimously to protect the lives of Indigenous children. The film introduces audiences to devoted advocate Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, who is a true hero with her fight for children across the land. It’s bittersweet to see Blackstock return to the Obomsawin oeuvre in The Messenger as the fight continues—but it’s also moving to see how committed people like her can inspire change. Read Marc Glassman’s 2016 interview with Obomsawin on the doc.

We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Our People Will Be Healed

While Obomsawin’s films are often marked by her trademark cocktail of passion and rage as she holds the Canadian government accountable for the violence it has committed against generations of Indigenous people, her movies almost always end with a note of optimism. They need to as she inspires others to look to the future. Our People Will Be Healed, like The Messenger, contains Obomsawin’s signature tone of optimism throughout. This hopeful film looks at the new opportunities afforded to children at the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre in Norway House and encourages Canada to continue its path towards reconciliation and allow Indigenous perspectives to guide the curriculum that provides foundational knowledge for the future of First Nations’ communities. Read the review of Our People Will Be Healed here.

Our People Will Be Healed, Alanis Obomsawin, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Read more about Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger in the upcoming issue of POV. Subscribe today!