British Columbia

Identity, race highlighted in documentary about basketball player barred from Indigenous tournament

A new documentary about a young man who was adopted by a Heiltsuk First Nation family and later barred from playing in an Indigenous basketball tournament because of his race is set to premier at the Hot Doc film festival on April 29.

Josiah Wilson was barred from an Indigenous basketball tournament because of his race

Josiah Wilson was born in Haiti and was adopted and raised by a Heiltsuk First Nation family. (Facebook)

It's been five years since Josiah Wilson was barred from an Indigenous basketball tournament in Prince Rupert, B.C., because of his race. 

"What happened to me ... it was horrible and it really hurt my feelings," Wilson said.

His story of the aftermath of that rejection as he examines his identity, race and belonging will premiere at this year's Hot Doc Film Festival.

Wilson is of Haitian descent. He was legally adopted as an infant in Haiti and raised by a Heiltsuk First Nation family in Calgary. In 2016, organizers of the Indigenous basketball tournament said Wilson, 21, couldn't compete because he did not have at least one-eighth First Nations ancestry.

Wilson was registered with the Heiltsuk First Nation and held a status card.

According to the film's writer and director, Yasmine Mathurin, the documentary — called One of Ours — starts from Wilson's hurtful rejection and follows his journey as he attempts to answer questions about his identity, race and belonging.

"I think for me ... I was concerned about how someone can shoulder these really massive questions around identity and identity politics," Mathurin said on CBC's Daybreak North

"I think anybody at that age is just trying to figure out who they are but I think to have a spotlight on someone in a time like that just felt really intense."

Mathurin was also born in Haiti but moved to Calgary during her pre-teenage years. She said she grew up close to Wilson's family and stayed in touch through Facebook — which is where Mathurin first found out about Wilson's story. But it took a long time for Wilson to open up and share his thoughts about the experience.

"To be honest, I ignored [Mathurin] for the first year because I didn't want to talk about it," Wilson said. "I was starting to get happy again and I didn't want to go back to that negative place."

He said Mathurin reached out to his family in a group chat and it wasn't until then that he decided to talk to her about it. Wilson said even when they first started filming, he didn't understand why anyone would be interested in his story.

"I was very hesitant at the beginning ... and I was definitely difficult to work with," he said. "But I would hate for this to happen to like a 10 or 13 year old ... and I just hope that this [documentary] changes people's vision and what happened to me doesn't happen to a kid."

Mathurin said she didn't go into making the documentary expecting answers from Wilson about his identity and what he thinks about the blood quantum rule, but she wanted to expand people's opinions and beliefs about what it means to be Indigenous.

Josiah Wilson, second from right, with adoptive siblings Teva, Arianne and biological sister Mariah. (Pamela Wilson/Facebook)

"In a lot of ways the film looks at healing ... and I think the biggest thing is it expand[s] our imaginations of what it means to belong and the meaning of family."

Mathurin says Wilson's attempt to rise above the negative experience and make the best of the situation can be seen through the documentary, but the bigger focus is around how he was feeling, what his community did to show support, and how he cared for himself throughout this challenging time.

"I think Josiah's story is quite unique as someone who is both Black, adopted legally and in the traditional Heiltsuk and also as an adoptee to non-Black parents," she said. "I feel like there are a lot of other folks who are Afro-Indigenous whose stories might connect with what Josiah has gone through."

One of Ours will debut, virtually, at the Hot Docs film festival on April 29.

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For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.