Photo: Cosmos Image
How can treaties be honoured if they were never honourable to begin with?
Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) has been in the business of documenting Indigenous people and resistance movements for over forty years, with 43 documentary films under her belt.
Her latest film Trick or Treaty? The Fight for Justice is set to launch at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the Masters program, making her the first Indigenous filmmaker to be included in that program. Trick or Treaty? investigates the untold history of Treaty 9*—the James Bay Treaty—that is, the difference between what was communicated to Indigenous signatories and what was actually printed on the treaty.
Alanis presents the perspectives of both Indigenous leaders and historians such as the late Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk Stan Louttit, professor John Long, and family members of signatories to the treaty, who describe a treaty made under false pretenses. The strongest revelation is the diary of Daniel D. MacMartin, a treaty commissioner for the Government of Ontario (1905-1906), where he details the ways Indigenous Elders were manipulated to sign the historic treaty.
MUSKRAT Magazine: In Trick or Treaty?, Tony Belcourt references 1971 several times, and that not much has changed since then, that the issues are still the same. What are your thoughts, as someone who has been documenting these issues for over 40 years? Have you seen any changes?
Alanis Obomsawin: What is not the same is what is happening to our own people. When you see an army of young people, it’s like a mission. You know, some of them have been on drugs, some of them have been in gangs, some of them have been in horrifying situations, and they come out of that and say no. They start recognizing and looking back at what their ancestors went through, and what they did for the land, and how they were tricked. There is just so much history that people are reliving, and wanting to honour it. There are many beautiful things that [our ancestors] did, that they left for us. This is what the people are talking about, they want to go back to those values, and to some of those traditions. This is probably the only way people will be healed from all of the pain and trouble that our people have had for such a long time.
There have been a lot of changes, I have witnessed so many changes, from not having any rights—and if you didn’t have a number you were in trouble—just all that history that oppressed the people, I have seen it change. In the early 60s I spent a lot of time in the courtroom, just watching. There would be lines of Indians being accused of who knows what, and it was guilty, guilty, guilty—they had no voice. The judges would just look at these Indians, and it was like “shut up, you don’t have a voice, we know all about you and you’re guilty”. And now, we’ve been filming in court in several places, and I’ve attended some court cases, and I see our people treated with respect. And it’s a very different time I will tell you right now, and I am so happy that in my lifetime I have witnessed a change. Our people have a voice, and they’re in there. We have lawyers, we have judges, we have doctors, we have nurses, we have teachers, we have photographers, we have our own channel, we have our own radio stations—it’s incredible. All of these very big changes from the time that I was a child. We have to recognize that.
All these peoples involved, the different communities in all the different provinces that have fought—every one of them, what they did counts. That is what has forged changes. I am not saying that everything is perfect, but I am saying that our people have a voice. And they are making changes, whether it’s on the reserve, in a community, on the streets in the city, it’s a different time, and everything counts. I feel very happy with what I see. Nobody’s going to discourage me.
AO: Eventually it’s going to go back to the courts and justice will be made. I am positive of that. It’s not possible for the history that has been done wrong, and told in lies, to remain. People will always fight against it and some day we are going to win. It can be changed especially when it can be proven. Proven in court with our people who are lawyers and judges. It is already changing. Look at the case that is happening in [British Columbia] now, it’s incredible. That the people get the land to be recognized as theirs is amazing. We never would have thought this would happen in the 40s or 60s—never. This is happening because our own people have been doing all these years of protesting, marching, getting educated.
MM: One of the things we have seen come out of 2012 and 2013’s Idle No More movement has been a renaissance of films, art, music, literature. Which artists inspire you at the moment?
AO: It’s very rich, there are a lot of things happening. We have a lot of talent everywhere we go. There are a lot of films, CDs, DVDs, videos, people singing, wonderful artists, painters, sculptors—name it, we have it.
MM: What is the current climate of filmmaking like for Indigenous filmmakers in Canada? Has it changed much since you first began making films?
AO: Every where I go I meet young people who have made a film or video, and a lot of them are good stories, a lot of them are quite professional, it’s very exciting. And look at APTN, if it’s done professionally, then their material gets shown on television. There is a lot going on, and a lot of training being done, it’s all there. We just have to appreciate it and encourage it.
There was nothing when I first began. It was very difficult for me, it was a fight for everything. I mean, I’m not saying it’s easy now, but everything is possible. We fought very hard to have a space in all of these institutions in art, and a place for Indigenous peoples to go and apply for funding whether it’s as an artist or filmmaker or painter. The doors are open for you, and there is money there to encourage first-time filmmakers, first-time artists, or whatever—it’s there. It wasn’t like that thirty years ago. So let’s appreciate what has been done, and let’s appreciate our own people, and our young people and what they are doing. Let’s look at what we are doing and let’s honour that.
MM: How did you first get involved with filmmaking?
AO: Actually it wasn’t really my idea. A long time ago, I was fighting to have influence in changing the education system because it was very bad for us. Mainly the way the history of the country was taught in the classroom, was like a design to hate our people. I felt it very much when I went to school and when I was growing up. I wanted to go into the classroom and tell other things to the children, other stories, our history, sing for them, play our games. Eventually, by the time I was 17 or so, I was singing for Scouts, you know, when they would go on field trips into the country, and talking about our history. From there I started having a lot of demands, and eventually I started touring to a lot of residential schools at that time, in the early 60s. And then I went to all kinds of schools from kindergarden to University, hundreds of schools.
By the time 1965 came I was doing a campaign to build a swimming pool on my reserve. Someone made a film about that, and it was shown on CBC on a primetime program called Telescope. From there the film board invited me to come and meet with the directors and producers. When I saw there was a studio who did all the film strips for classrooms, for educational purposes, I got very excited over that. I started working on that, and we had a professional product that the teachers would use to teach the children, and it was the voice of our people.. Eventually I started making 15mm films and documentaries, and children were always number one in everything I did. But then there were a lot of things happening for the resistance of our people—the land taking, and stuff like that—so then I would go and cover that, so that’s how it all began.
MM: What advice do you have for young up-and-coming filmmakers?
AO: It depends on what you want to do. My main interest is documentary filmmaking. If you are interested in doing that, I would say the first rule is to have patience, and to have love for what you are doing. A lot of patience, because you have to listen for hours to people, because you must not forget that if you are doing a documentary, it is not your story, it’s somebody else’s story. So you have to give that person room to really figure out the best way that that story can be told. You can’t go in looking for people to tell you what you want to hear—I’m sorry, that’s not documentary filmmaking.
…it’s a very different time I will tell you right now, and I am so happy that in my lifetime I have witnessed a change.
MM: Are you working on any new films?
AO: Yes, I am always working. Right now I am working on two and a half films.
MM: How do you choose your subjects?
AO: It’s very hard to say, they often just happen. I get a lot of demands from many communities for me to go. Most of the documentaries that I make, it’s because of urgency. It’s often like guerilla filmmaking, it had to be filmed as it was happening. Of course, this can be very difficult to do, but I am very happy that I have made every film that I did.
*Treaty 9 was an agreement established in July 1905, between the Government of Canada in the name of King Edward VII and various First Nations in northern Ontario.
A member of the Abenaki First Nation, Alanis Obomsawin is one of Canada’s most eminent documentary filmmakers. For over 40 years, her work has helped give a voice to Indigenous people in Canada. Her most recent film, Trick or Treaty?, follows the journey of Indigenous people in their quest for justice as they seek to establish a dialogue with the Canadian government.
Alanis Obomsawin has directed 40 documentaries with the National Film Board of Canada. Her work—in particular her feature documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, about the 1990 Mohawk uprising at Kanehsatake and Oka—has garnered numerous international awards. In 2013, her film Hi-Ho Mistahey! had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
- Trick or Treaty? (Director) 2014
- Hi-Ho Mistahey! (Director) 2013
- Professor Norman Cornett (Director) 2009
- History of Manawan Part Two (Director) 2009
- Waban-aki: People from Where the Sun Rises (Director) 2006
- Our Nationhood (Director) 2004
- Is the Crown at War with Us? (Director) 2002
- Rocks at Whiskey Trench (Director) 2000
- Spudwrench (Director) 1997
- My Name Is Kahentiiosta (Director) 1995
- Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (Director) 1993
- Walker (Director) 1992
- Le patro Le Prévost – 80 Years Later (Director) 1991
- No Address (Director) 1988
- Poundmaker’s Lodge: A Healing Place (Director) 1987
- Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis Child (Director) 1986
- Incident at Restigouche (Director) 1984
- Canada Vignettes: Wild Rice Harvest Kenora (Director) 1979
- Gabriel Goes to the City (Director) 1979
- Amisk (Director) 1977
- Mother of Many Children (Director) 1977
- Christmas at Moose Factory (Director) 1971