After 6 decades of art and activism, Alanis Obomsawin is still holding up a mirror to Canada

The Abenaki director has made more than 50 films about Indigenous communities in Canada. After being honoured at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, she sat down with Q’s Tom Power to talk about her incredible life and accomplishments.

In a Q interview, the acclaimed Abenaki filmmaker reflects on her life and accomplishments

Alanis Obomsawin joined host Tom Power in the Q studio in Toronto. (Christy Kim/CBC)

Throughout her esteemed career, Alanis Obomsawin has held up a mirror to Canada with more than 50 films that spotlight Indigenous stories and interrogate our nation's relationship with Indigenous communities.

The visionary Abenaki filmmaker, musician and activist has garnered worldwide acclaim for her work, but over the last year, she's collected a whole new heap of honours, including the $100,000 Glenn Gould Prize, the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media and a career retrospective at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

To reflect on her incredible life and accomplishments, Obomsawin sat down with Q's Tom Power for a long-form interview. Here are some highlights from their conversation.

Her interest in social justice began with courtroom visits

In the 1960s, Obomsawin said, she spent a period of time in courtrooms where she'd observe how the Canadian justice system would often fail Indigenous people, who didn't have a voice to defend themselves.

She got emotional as she recalled seeing an interaction between a human rights lawyer and an Indigenous man who couldn't afford legal representation. When the lawyer asked the man how much money he had, the man responded that he had nothing.

"[The lawyer said], 'Let me see. Empty your pockets,'" recounted Obomsawin. "And he did and he had 17 cents.… And the lawyer said, 'Give me the 17 cents. I'm going to defend you. That'll be my fee.' I never forgot that. It was just so incredible."

Obomsawin said she's heartened to see much greater awareness these days of issues affecting Indigenous communities. "I see more clearly … how much people want to see justice," she said. "There's good people everywhere."

WATCH | Alanis Obomsawin's full interview with Tom Power:

She performed in Canadian prisons

When Obomsawin heard Indigenous people made up a significant percentage of the Canadian prison population, she decided to entertain them with her music.

"I said, 'It looks like my relatives are in jail. I'm going to go visit them,'" she told Power.

At one maximum-security prison near Montreal, she said, no one showed up for her performance at first. And then all at once, 500 men walked in to take a seat. In the front row were two Québécois men who were "killing themselves laughing" at her as she sang with her drum.

Demonstrating her courage and ability to bridge divides, Obomsawin stood up to the two men, telling them that they could try sitting in her place if they thought it was so funny. 

"So I start singing again, and they were smiling, but not laughing as deep as before," she recalled. "And then I start teaching them words in my language, and they're tapping their feet and they're singing with me. And it was fantastic. I had a very beautiful time.… Not one guy went out before coming to me, holding my hand or kissing me on the cheek."

She brought a swimming pool to her Quebec reserve

In 1966, CBC's Telescope profiled Obomsawin for getting a swimming pool built in Odanak, an Abenaki reserve near Sorel-Tracy, Que., where she spent part of her childhood.

In her interview with Power, she spoke about what inspired the campaign. She had seen two children crying after being turned away from a pool in the neighbouring town.

"[The children said], 'Well, we went to go swimming and we had the money to pay, and they said, 'No [savages] here,'" remembered Obomsawin. "So I said to the children, 'Don't worry, we'll get our own swimming pool.'"

The CBC film about Obomsawin attracted the attention of the National Film Board of Canada, which led to the young activist making her directorial debut: a short documentary, titled Christmas at Moose Factory, which was released in 1971.

Alanis Obomsawin the activist

3 years ago
Duration 22:52
In 1966 <em>Telescope</em> profiles an Abenaki singer and activist who brought a swimming pool to her Quebec reserve.

On making Christmas at Moose Factory

Listening has been at the core of Obomsawin's practice since the very beginning. To film Christmas at Moose Factory, she lived and worked with young Cree children in a residential school in northern Ontario. The entire film is made up of the children's drawings and is narrated by them.

"During the day, I went into the classrooms and told stories to the children, and so they were very used to me," said Obomsawin. "After me telling them so many stories and playing with them at recreation time ... 'Ah!' I said. 'Now it's your turn. You're going to tell me stories.' And this is how I got them.… This is how I made the film. It's them telling me about themselves."

On making Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

In 1993, Obomsawin released her best-known documentary, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, about the 1990 Oka Crisis. The conflict was sparked by the proposed expansion of a golf course and the development of townhouses on disputed land that included a Mohawk burial ground, and involved a 78-day armed standoff between protesters and police.

Obomsawin said she remained in Oka, Que., for the duration of the crisis and stayed another two weeks beyond that to capture additional footage. She remembered some police officers had been rude to her, calling her a "feather face" and refusing to let her pass a checkpoint she had permission to go through.

The year the film was released, Obomsawin spoke to CBC's Brian D. Johnson, who asked her to respond to criticism that the documentary was one-sided. "I can't hide the fact that I have a point of view," she replied. "Every film I've made, there's a point of view.… I'm not pointing at anyone in the film. I think it's a mirror for this country to look at."

Obomsawin told Power she had experienced backlash and racism after releasing Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. "I was really persecuted for having made that film," she said.

Filmmaking from behind the barricades at Oka

28 years ago
Duration 7:56
Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin describes making her 1993 film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance about the events in Oka, Que. in 1990.

Her new film Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair is a powerful reflection on truth and reconciliation

Obomsawin's new short documentary, Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair, recently premiered at TIFF. It's framed around a powerful speech given by the former senator, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"It was so incredible," Obomsawin said of Sinclair's speech. "Every word he said was sacred. You learn something of the past, you learn something about the country, about our people. And I think it's quite a lesson to watch the film for this purpose."

The documentary is also interspersed with the haunting testimonies of residential school survivors, which Obomsawin said always leaves her with a lump in her throat. "I'll never get used to it without feeling so much," she told Power. "And I think … everyone who looks at it will feel that way."

Listen to Alanis Obomsawin's full conversation with Tom Power near the top of this page.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Produced by Ben Edwards.


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