Sonia Boileau’s first major documentary was Last Call Indian which explores the reality that faces a last generation status Indian as she contemplates her life and possible loss of her links to Aboriginal culture after the death of her Mohawk Grand-father. In this Q&A, she reflects on the themes in this critically acclaimed documentary.
Could you explain the meaning of the title?
The title actually has two meanings for me. According to the Indian Act I am a last generation status Indian. I am what is considered a “6-2”; which basically stipulates that if I do not have children with another status Indian my children will not have an Indian status recognized by the Canadian government. But it also has a deeper meaning to me. Beyond a political “status” there is also the issue of cultural loss. I felt like I didn’t know much about my cultural heritage. And if I didn’t do anything to change that now, my children wouldn’t know anything either … and that would pretty much be the end of the Mohawk heritage in my immediate family.
Tell us about your Mohawk grandfather, and why his death inspired you to explore your roots and make this film?
Mitchell Morris Bonspille was born in Kanahwake in 1929. His family moved to Kanesatake when he was a baby. His father tried to keep him by his side as long as he could but at the age of 12, my grandfather was sent to Shingwauk residential school in Sault-Ste-Marie. He was actually looking forward to going at first because he had three sisters who were there and he hadn't seen them in years.
Sadly he was not allowed to interact with his sisters during his stay at Shingwauk. He left the school when he was 18 and chose to move to Montreal where he worked in a printing shop and where he met my grandmother, Joan Bilingsley. He no longer knew how to speak Mohawk and had pretty much learned to forget his whole cultural identity.
After years in Montreal with his wife and kids, Morris got ill with tuberculosis and the family chose to move to Oka, mainly because the fresh air would probably help heal quicker. That is when his children found out they were Mohawk … that their father was Mohawk. He came back to Oka and slowly learned how to call it home again. He opened a printing business in his home where his children worked as well. He reconnected with friends and family members but still kept the grief of his cultural loss to himself. He never spoke of Shingwauk or of the fact that the school stripped him of his culture.
The Bubba I know was the kindest man on earth. He was calm and quiet. He was a small man but had a huge heart and wisdom that made him seem 8 feet tall. When he spoke, you listened. He loved country music and gardening but most especially he loved being with his family: his wife, his children and his grandchildren (and we're quite the bunch!). Everyone in Kanesatake and in Oka loved and respected him...they still do. We all miss him.
An emotional section of the documentary deals with your visit to the residential school that your grandfather attended as a child. What insights did that visit give you about him and his generation?
There is a book called At the Woods Edge , about the history of Kanehsatake. There is an entire chapter dedicated to Shingwauk residential school. That is how I found out about what the residential school system had done to the Nation and to my grandfather’s generation as a whole. But I did not fully grasp the impact it had on each individual person who attended, until my visit.
Seeing pictures of my grandfather, school stats, medical records…it made it all so very real. I stood in the room where he slept, and sat in a classroom where he was told to stop speaking his language. It was heartbreaking but at the same time, relieving. I was relieved to finally understand why my mother knew so little and why my grandfather was such a quiet man. I also felt like a better granddaughter for going and seeing for myself.
In the film you explain that your mother didn't even know she was native until your grandfather moved back to Oka. Did she represent a kind of lost generation, one which hid or were unaware of their native background?
Definitely. And I am truly grateful to her for admitting it and talking about it in the film. My mother’s generation I think is the one who has suffered the biggest loss in terms of cultural identity and attachment. The assimilation policy has definitely hit them the hardest. My grandfather’s generation got its pride stolen, which resulted in my mother’s generation unawareness — not to be confused with ignorance. Ignorance is choosing not to know… they didn’t have a choice; they DIDN’T know. But it’s never too late to change things.
You say in the film that the Oka crisis served as a wakeup call for your family about its aboriginal heritage...even for you, though you were only 12 at the time. The event caused people to take a greater pride in their aboriginal heritage or feel protective of it. Can you explain why Oka was a turning point?
The Oka Crisis is a huge turning point…for the community of course and for me personally. Sadly it took me a long time to see that it was a positive turning point. Pride wasn’t the first thing I felt at that time. Neighbors stopped talking to us, there were parents who wouldn’t let their kids be my friend anymore… things like that made it hard for me personally to take pride in what was going on. Now I understand how big it was, how it reaffirmed the community’s identity. I wish I was older than so I could better understand. I remember when I was in secondary 1 (grade 7- provincial school obviously) I wore a t-shirt with a Warrior flag on it to school and the principal ordered me to wear it inside out or he would send me home. I wore a sweater over it and felt ashamed. If I had then the adult eyes and mind I have now, I would never had hid it with a sweater. I would have worn it proud, not afraid of the consequences…and worn it everyday.
In the documentary we see you searching online for a Mohawk partner because you say that you want to ensure that your children retain their native status. What does assimilation mean for you? What are your fears and concerns about it?
That scene is obviously sarcastic — meant to show how absurd the situation is; and the pressure put on last generation status. Assimilation, for me, is not something I can fight on a political or governmental level. It’s a personal fight. If I don’t want my heritage to end with me, it’s up to me to make sure it doesn’t end. Whether on paper my kids are status or not I will pass on what I know. Which isn’t as much as I would like, right now, but I’m getting better . Just as an example: my son is full status because his father is Algonquin. But my two beautiful stepdaughters do not have status (their mother is non-native). Are we going to teach the girls differently from our son? No. All three of them will know that we are Aboriginal. I’d rather think of it that way…because assimilation on a socio-political-National level is just too scary.
Today there is a revival of pride in Aboriginal heritage among young people. What accounts for that?
I can’t speak for everyone but in my personal opinion I think part of it has to do with society recognizing that assimilation from residential schools was wrong: Assimilation is wrong. That allowed people to bury their shame and give Aboriginal youth a voice. Also all the different initiatives, programs, that promote First Nations culture. It’s all about education.
What does Reconciliation between natives and non natives in Canada look like to you?
It looks like my everyday life.
Once again it’s all about education. Education and communication. I think (or blindly hope) that it’s better than it was and that we are slowly getting there. I think Maya Angelou said it best: "We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude toward it. Uproot guilt and plant forgiveness. Tear out arrogance and seed humility. Exchange love for hate --- thereby, making the present comfortable and the future promising."
Your generation seems less political and more interested in issues of cultural revival and identity. Is this the case? If so, why?
I think the main issue for today's generation is preserving culture and reclaiming identity. People are finding ways to do this regardless of the political situation. That being said, I think political issues are still pressing and are still relevant to the younger generation, we are just trying to take matters into our own individual hands at the same time — by trying to either learn or teach culture and tradition. I don't think anyone wants to resort to violence but the reality is that sadly in some cases people are forced to resort to confrontation if the threat is imminent — not violence, but standing up and being heard. Hopefully that is enough for people to listen without having that situation turn violent.