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On the Anniversary of Attawapiskat, One Film Tells the Real Story

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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?

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Charlie Angus MP with Alanis Obamsawin at the launch of People of the Kattawapiskat River, Bloor Cinema.

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.

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Photo of the Linklater family living in a tent during Attawapiskat Housing Crisis, 2011.

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.

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Charlie Angus with a much younger Alanis Obamsawin, photo portrait on the wall on the ByWard Market Ottawa.

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