Alanis Obomsawin's tradition of giving back at Christmas

For more than 50 years, the legendary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has been making gifts for Aboriginal children at Christmas.
Legendary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin has been making toys for children at Christmas for over 50 years. (Alanis Obomsawin)

Celebrated filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is best known for her documentaries but at this time of year, she's busy working on a different kind of production. 

Every Christmas, for over fifty years, Obomsawin has been making toys, dolls and blankets for children in need.

Alanis Obomsawin (Scott Stevens)

“It’s a lot of work but I enjoy every bit of it,” said Obomsawin.

This year, she turned 80 years old and this Christmas she's giving over 80 gifts, mostly to children from her reserve of Odanak in Quebec.

“I’m very concerned about children and I like to know that they’re OK. It’s really a lot of fun when they open their presents to see their faces. It’s pretty special.”

Obomsawin is one of Canada’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers.

She’s a recipient of the Order of Canada and has made over 30 films highlighting the issues of Aboriginal people in Canada.

Her advocacy for First Nation children began when she would visit residential schools in the 1960s.

Alanis Obomsawin visits First Nation children at school. (Alanis Obomsawin)

“I wanted to tell the children something else than what they were hearing about us. It was very simple, nothing complicated. I thought 'I have to be with the children and I have to tell them our history and tell them stories.'”

In 1971, Obomsawin made her first film Christmas at Moose Factory, a northern Ontario community that she recently returned to. 
A child with one of Obomsawin's handmade dolls. (Alanis Obomsawin)
“When I was there a couple of months ago there was a woman, I didn’t recognize her and she came to hug me and she was singing in my ear a song that I had taught her when she was a little girl and now her hair is all white and she is a grandmother," she said. 

Obomsawin's latest film Hi-Ho Mistahey! about the children of Attawapiskat and their fight for their right to education, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

After decades of covering youth in action, Obomsawin says she's noticing a change in First Nation's youth.

Connie Walker interviews Alanis Obomsawin in Toronto. (Christian Allaire)

"It’s more than hope, something else is happening … When I hear the young people talking and the responsibility that they are talking … Even though there are problems, when these young people realize and recognize who they are, nothing will touch them because of the strength that they are having now."

Jason Ryle, the executive director of the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto says Obomsawin is coming full circle.

“At this stage in her career, in terms of the topic that she’s exploring in her latest films, it’s actually taking her back to her first passion which is children and children’s rights and their well-being and their dignity," he said. 

Alanis Obomsawin holds one of her handmade dolls. (Alanis Obomsawin)

But Ryle says that passion is evident whether she is making a film or making toys for children in need.

"It’s really great to see her still have the craft of toy making as a very honest and beautiful and heartfelt medium in which to communicate that.”


Connie Walker

CBC Reporter

Connie Walker is a reporter in the Investigative Unit at CBC News. Follow her on twitter @connie_walker


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?