Jordan and his mother, Virginia Anderson | NFB

Alanis Obomsawin’s Principled Fight Continues

Alanis Obomsawin’s fifty-third documentary for the NFB concludes her six-part series on the rights of Indigenous children

9 mins read

To think of history as a collection of distant stories from the past unable to repeat or manifest themselves in the present is naïve. Alanis Obomsawin’s powerful work in over fifty documentary films over the past five decades has highlighted how the legacy of colonization and discrimination towards Indigenous people, as well as the fight against it, continues to this day.

Obomsawin’s new film Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, reminds us not only that history repeats itself, but also that the fight for justice, no matter how long or tough, can be won.

Alanis Obomsawin | Cosmos Image

The film celebrates and honours the life of Jordan River Anderson and the legacy he inspired. Anderson, born with a genetic muscular disorder, died in a Winnipeg hospital away from his family in the Norway House Cree Nation even after getting clearance to move to a home setting. While the federal and provincial government fought over the cost of his home care, Anderson lost his life.

The injustice Anderson and his family encountered began the call for change for other First Nations’ youths suffering similar consequences as they struggled to get medical care and access. From this appalling reality, Jordan’s Principle was created. It ensures that Indigenous children in need of medical care living on- and off-reserve have access to government-funded public services.

“It’s a large injustice for our people who do live on the reserves. They had to give their children to the system so they could be taken to be wards of the government. You can imagine how unjust that is,” says Obomsawin. “Parents love them the most and can take care of them better than any other family, but instead they gave them to people who take them in foster homes.”

Obomsawin stresses that the separation of young Indigenous children from their families, culture and language prior to the implementation of Jordan’s Principle was all too reminiscent of Canada’s history of assimilation and discrimination. “It’s the same thing,” Obomsawin quietly insists. “Feeling this kind of similar superiority. To stop children from being Indigenous.”

In the documentary, Obomsawin showcases the story of Noah Buffalo Jackson, who lives with cerebral palsy. Although he eventually benefits from Jordan’s Principle years after his family filed a complaint in 2012, he was denied funding for specialized transportation to go to school. In the film, his father recounts that the moment his son was born, a social worker advised him to give the baby away. His response is vital to the sentiments shared by families in similar positions. Noah’s father said, “This is my son. That is my responsibility. I will look after him as best I can for the rest of my life. He’s my son and you’re not going to take that away from me.”

Despite Jordan’s Principle being passed unanimously in 2007, it was not implemented for years. The issue isn’t new for Obomsawin. She’s been documenting and covering this concern since 2010 and has been working on this film since 2011. She has released five other films that are connected to Indigenous youth, one of which was We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice.

Cindy Blackstock | NFB

The 2016 film, which documents the discrimination case filed by the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada in 2007, exposes how the federal government was reluctant to take Jordan’s Principle seriously: the $11 million meant to help assist Indigenous children in need were never used. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the Government’s improper implementation of Jordan’s Principle resulted in discrimination against Indigenous youth. That decision changed and benefited the lives of many Indigenous children and families applying for and relying on Jordan’s Principle.

At the forefront of this advocacy for justice, and a main subject in Obomsawin’s film, is Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. In one scene in the documentary, Blackstock expresses her gratitude to the Anderson family: “What you have sacrificed no one can give ever give words to,” she says, “but I am so grateful for the changes that your son’s legacy has made in the lives of thousands of children in Canada. We are all in your debt.”

Despite the events of 2016, Obomsawin says that it was only in 2017, when the third noncompliance order was issued by the tribunal for failure to properly implement Jordan’s Principle, that a true shift began. This shift and how it has benefited many children is documented in Obomsawin’s film.

“This is the greatest thing that I’ve seen so far. It’s something that we never thought would happen,” says Obomsawin. “There’s a lot of will to make sure that everyone is getting help across the country. They don’t have to move from reserves and they don’t have to give their children to another family to get help anymore,” she adds.

Unlike We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice, which immerses us in the legal realm of Jordan’s case, the new film concentrates on the Anderson family’s struggles and sacrifices along the path to justice. The intimacy, innocence and pain behind Anderson’s death are evoked by the voices of those closest to him.

Obomsawin ends the film with the first national Jordan’s Principle Summit that took place in Winnipeg last September, hosted by the Assembly of First Nations—an event that Obomsawin says she was “very happy to be able to witness.”

In this powerful scene, we hear stories from families across Canada on the impact Jordan’s legacy has had. But when one attendee asks what happens when beneficiaries of Jordan’s Principle are no longer children and lose their right to these services, it also brings forth a new battle to be fought.

Obomsawin acknowledges that the fight for justice continues. “If you fight long enough you can win,” she says. “There is proof of that in the film. The film teaches you that you can never give up. You can win. It’s possible even concerning [a dispute with] the government. And it’s possible when you work together.”

Dina Lobo is a Toronto-based journalist and emerging filmmaker currently doing a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media at Ryerson University. In 2016, her first film SIXTEEN was selected to be part of the Atlantic Film Festival.

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