This week will mark the first anniversary since Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency over the abysmal housing situation on the James Bay coast. Footage of the living conditions in this isolated community shocked Canadians and resulted in a media firestorm.
The crisis became a cultural Pandora's box that unleashed numerous issues and misconceptions regarding our relationship with Canada's First Peoples. Now on the eve of this dark anniversary, Canada's "Katrina" moment has made it to the big screen. And who better equipped to tell the real story of the 2011-housing crisis than iconic filmmaker Alanis Obamsawin?
Last week, the 80-year-old First Nation activist, chanteuse and artist premiered her new film at Toronto's ImagineNative Film Festival. The screening of The People of the Kattawapiskat River had all the makings of a Toronto gala. But mingled in with the hipsters and Indie "doc" filmmakers were many First Nation people including some who had lived through the horrific social crisis that drew international attention last winter.
The film examines the political and personal fallout of the housing crisis through the eyes of the people at ground zero. It is a harrowing journey, but one that is surprisingly hopeful. Unlike some media reports that portrayed the Attawapiskat people as hopeless and hapless or habitual scroungers on the hard-pressed Canadian taxpayer, Obamsawin reveals the incredible dignity of the community.
She has a quiet way of drawing us into the lives of the people living in appalling conditions. In one scene, a single father who is living in a shed describes why he left the city and returned to the reserve. His feeding and burping of his baby girl creates a level of intimacy that is almost overwhelming.
This up close and personal style of filmmaking has been the mark of the woman who is the documentary voice of Canada's First Nation communities. Born in 1932 as a member of the Abenaki First Nation, Obamsawin suffered from isolation and racism as a child in Trois-Riviere, Quebec. In 1960, she landed in New York as a singer. This sense of cultural displacement defined her vision of searching out the First Nation place in North American life. By the late 1960s, she began making documentary films including Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, the definitive documentary on the Oka Crisis.
She has made over 30 films and been the recipient of numerous awards including being named to the Playback Canadian Film and Television Hall of Fame. Now at 80 she still has many film and art projects on the go. Little wonder, that long before the Attawapiskat crisis hit the headlines, Obamsawin was on the ground in Attawapiskat.
I first met Obamsawin in the days leading up to the crisis when I was working with local youth leaders. Watching the film was, at times uncomfortable, as I knew all the families in the film. I was fascinated by how she handled the issues of the ugly backlash that was unleashed against the community in the days following Prime Minister's Harper's decision to depose the Band Chief and Council. After the imposition of the Third Party Manager, I became one of the community's de facto spokesmen in interviews with television, print and talk radio. This imposition of a Third Party manager unleashed a brutal barrage of accusations (mostly unfounded) over mismanagement.
Perhaps the low point in this racist storm was when TV troll Ezra Levant publicly ridiculed the "Indian" Band for spending money on a zamboni.
Obamsawin artfully uses this bogus "Zamboni-gate" to bring Canadians into the uncomfortable No-Man's land of Canadian racist stereotyping. She juxtaposes Levant's rant with an interview with Stella Lazarus, a local woman who fundraised money for years from local bingos in order to purchase a proper ice-cleaning machine for the town's only rink. Levant's ugly ridicule speaks for itself, while Lazarus prides in helping the children enjoy evening skating sparkles.
As I watched the film, I thought of how many times the federal government has punished isolated First Nation reserves who have stood up to the government. The Harper government imposed a Third Party manager in a blatant attempt to change the channel and to blame the victims. This is how business is done in Canada's colonial fortress at Indian Affairs. They very nearly succeeded. But impoverished little Attawapiskat stood together and as the film shows, was finally given some level of vindication in Federal court. How fitting that the Alanis Obamsawin was present to document this very real victory.
The People of the Kattawapiskat River will set the bar for any other studies on the Attawapiskat crisis. It is a film that will define the discussion on this issue for years to come. Thank you, Alanis.
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan Native Brad Laroque alias "Freddy Kruger" come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kahnesatake reserve in Oka, Quebec, Saturday September 1, 1990. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Shaney Komulainen)
A warrior raises his weapon as he stands on an overturned police vehicle blocking a highway at the Kahnesetake reserve near Oka, Quebec July 11, 1990 after a police assault to remove Mohawk barriers failed. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson)
A Quebec Metis places a stick with an eagle feather tied to it into the barrel of a machine gun mounted on an army armored vehicle at Oka Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990. The vehicle was one of two positioned a few metres away from the barricade causing a breakdown in negotiations. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Grimshaw)
A Mohawk Indian winds up to punch a soldier during a fight that took place on the Khanawake reserve on Montreal's south shore in 1990. The army broke up the fight by shooting into the air. Twenty plus years after an armed standoff at Oka laid Canada's often difficult relationship with its native peoples bare in international headlines, the bitterly contested land remains in legal limbo. (CP PHOTO)
Two aboriginal protesters man a barricade near the entrance to Ipperwash Provincial Park, near Ipperwash Beach, Ont., on Sept. 7, 1995. (CP PHOTO)
Ken Wolf, 9, walks away from a graffiti-covered smoldering car near the entrance to the Ipperwash Provincial Park in this September 7, 1995 photo. A group of aboriginal protesters were occupying the park and nearby military base. (CP PHOTO)
Caledonian activist Gary McHale (right) is confronted by a Six Nations Protester as he attempts to lead members of Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality (CANACE) in carrying a makeshift monument to Six Nations land in Caledonia, Ont., on Sunday February 27, 2011. CANACE claim inequality in treatment for Caledonian residents from Ontario Provincial Police compared to that of the Six Nation population. They planned to plant a monument of six nation property to demand an apology from the OPP, but were turned back by protesters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
First Nations people of the Grand River Territory stand with protest signs as they force the redirection of the Vancover 2010 Olympic Torch Relay from entering The Six Nations land Monday, December 21, 2009 near Caledonia, Ontario. The Olympic torch's journey across Canada was forced to take a detour in the face of aboriginal opposition to the Games, with an Ontario First Nation rerouting its relay amid a protest from a splinter group in the community. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley)
Six Nations protesters guard the front entrance of a housing development in Hagersville, Ont., just south of the 15-month aboriginal occupation at Caledonia on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. The protest was peaceful. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)
Mohawk protestors block a road near the railway tracks near Marysville, Ont. with a bus and a bonfire Friday April 21, 2006. The natives showed their support to fellow natives in Caledonia, Ont. where they were in a stand off with police regarding land claims.(CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)