“First of all, I hate guns. The army had guns, the police had guns, the warriors had guns…I thought to myself, ‘how am I going to function here?’”
— Alanis Obomsawin on making Kanehsatake
A 78-day faceoff between Indigenous people and the combined might of the Canadian military and Quebec’s provincial police produced one of the most dramatic stories in this country’s history and a documentary masterpiece, Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. Obomsawin reacted to the events of July 11, 1990, when Sûreté du Québec officers met armed resistance when attempting to forcibly remove barricades set up by Mohawks to protect an ancestral burial ground, by going to the Kanehsatake reserve to film the story as it unfolded.
During the resulting confrontation that July morning, tear gas shot out by the police blew back in their faces and a police corporal was killed in the midst of a gunfight. People of the Kahnawake and Akwesasne reserves joined the Mohawks, who were preventing the construction of luxury condos and the expansion of a golf course on their sacred land.
In that tense summer, with bloody conflict ever a concern, Obomsawin worked as a combat journalist, getting to know the personal dramas of the people fighting for their land and heritage. Much of the most meaningful footage is in Kanehsatake while other parts exist in her films Spudwrench (1997) and My Name is Kahentiiosta (1995).
Obomsawin told POV that during that summer she felt, “Like sitting on a wall. You never knew what was going to happen the next second. Especially at night it was scary, because the only light was the army spotlight that would go on and off.”
After the government told the film crew that they couldn’t guarantee their safety should a fight occur, only Obomsawin stayed. “I saw so many people, like the warriors, having so much courage—feeling that they had a mission in going through with this. I felt like I had the courage enough to stay there and document it, and that’s how the film got made.”
Quebec premier Robert Bourassa eventually asked the federal administration to send in troops. After many threatening situations, the Mohawks agreed to surrender in late September. The Canadian government bought the disputed land from Quebec, stopping the construction of the condos and golf course. But it hasn’t been returned to the Mohawks.
In Kanehsatake, Obomsawin skillfully presents the tense situation behind the lines with compassion towards the Indigenous people while not demonising the police and armed forces. The film and the crisis—almost interchangeable now—may well have been the turning point in terms of the white majority’s much more positive reactions to Indigenous claims.
Watch Kanehsatake below: