Jordan River Anderson with his mother, Virginia Anderson | Image source: NFB
Alanis Obomsawin’s 53rd documentary Jordan River Anderson – The Messenger will make its debut at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) on Sept 10, 2019. The film tells the decade long journey that took place in order to implement Jordan’s Principle; a law that states, “all First Nations children living in Canada can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them.” Yes – Canada actually needs a law for that. The Messenger tells the story about what it took to save thousands of Indigenous children from suffering the same fate of Jordan River Anderson.
Jordan was a child from Norway House Cree First Nation in northern Manitoba who was not able to spend a day of his life in his family home in his First Nation because of racist Canadian bureaucracy. In The Messenger, Obomsawin details the Canadian government’s negligence of Indigenous children from the story of Jordan, to ignoring calls to prevent suicides of Indigenous children in many northern First Nations communities. The film exposes upsetting realities as it follows young people, their families, and communities as they needlessly suffer while Jordan’s principle is left unimplemented, as well as the triumphant struggle of the Indigenous community to hold the government to account and make Jordan’s Principle law.
Despite the historic win, The Messenger shows there is still work to be done in the process of reconciliation. Obomsawin holds up the ideologies, lack of government action, and powerful examples of what settler society and Indigenous communities can do in order for reconciliation to move forward. Before the film’s debut, Alanis Obomsawin talked with Muskrat Magazine’s Erica Commanda about the film and why it’s a must watch.
EC: The film sends a powerful message about Indigenous resilience and overcoming injustice. As the director, what do you hope people take away from the film and Jordan’s journey?
AO: It’s been such a long fight for so many years, but imagine if the people had given up? We wouldn’t have had the result that we have now. It proves that if you fight to the end – and it’s just and it’s right – you can influence change; and you can enforce different laws. In the end it was nice to see everybody together for the betterment of our children.
EC: There were several examples throughout the film of health agencies asking Indigenous families to give up their children because of their disabilities. Do you believe that the continued non-implemenation of Jordan’s Principle was another aspect of genocide or contributed to it?
AO: Yes, it did. It’s the same thing. It’s not new. When the first Europeans came here in 1630 -1680 they said that Indian people were too close to their children, love their children too much and the best way is to separate the children from their parents so they can control them. From the very beginning that’s what they had in mind. All this time, they still think that’s the way to do it. People can really fight hard, we have so many strong characters across the country, to make the changes and it’s happening now.
EC: In the film Julian Falconer said, “we perpetuated the oppression, we are the beneficiaries of colonialism, we are racists.” That self acknowledgement felt like a game changer in the film; when settlers can see their part in oppression things can change. What was it like for yourself when you heard that?
AO: It was so strong. It’s incredible what he said and it was so true. To hear it from them, it’s amazing. He’s very helpful to the people up north.
EC: The film invoked a lot of emotion. As someone who covers many important Indigenous struggles, can you talk about how you cope and what gives you hope when covering negative forces in our communities?
AO: I fight it. But it’s changing. I find these last 5 to 10 years have been different. Canadians are listening. Before everytime you said something about Indigenous rights they would say, “all of the Indians are complaining, they are drunk, they are lazy, they don’t pay taxes.” It’s changing now, there is more respect. I really believe Canadians want to see justice and what is the real history of this country. All of the lies and books they wrote and taught in the classroom, as far as I am concerned- it’s a crime. That is changing. It’s profound the change.
EC: I really like the way you document Indigenous stories that need to be told. As an Indigenous filmmaker, why is it important that our stories are told from an Indigenous lens?
AO: A lot of people are trying to repair that pain. It’s not only important for Indigenous people but for everybody in the country. The culture and tradition is so rich. This is where we can get better. It’s not from outside it has to come from us, from inside. It’s going back to some of the cultures and traditions we had, that are good for us and for whoever is around us. We are so excited about doing film, even if it’s just local for educational purposes, it’s so important to get the story from our relations and become even more a part of it.
EC: What advice do you have for young Indigenous documentary filmmakers?
AO: The main thing is as a documentary filmmaker is that you have to want to hear and to listen. I usually do a sound interview before I go in with a camera crew to just listen as long as I can until I feel I know what the story is. I always go back to the first interview I did because what goes on there is never going to happen again. Often people get very moved by what they’re talking about and sometimes they say things they never said to anyone before; it’s very sacred. I think it’s so important to want to hear and have a lot of respect for the subject that you are going to be working with; but listen until you feel what you know what the story is.