The Current

'This is why I revolt': How Alanis Obomsawin's painful childhood experiences inform her filmmaking

Alanis Obomsawin's 53rd film tackles the legal battle for Indigenous children to receive equal healthcare services. She spoke to Laura Lynch about how her own experiences of discrimination as a child have informed her long career as a filmmaker.

Director's 53rd film, premiering at TIFF, tackles the fight for healthcare equality for Indigenous children

Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

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At 87 years old, Abenaki director Alanis Obomsawin has been making films about Indigenous struggles and resistance for more than half a century.

Her 53rd film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, would suggest she's still not slowing down.

Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger is a documentary that explores the short life of a Manitoba Cree boy, and the long legal battle for equality in children's services that he inspired. 

Anderson spent all five years of his life in a Winnipeg hospital, while federal and provincial governments argued over who should pay for his home care. His life and death motivated Indigenous activists to push the federal government to pass Jordan's Principle, a law meant to ensure that Indigenous children get equal access to healthcare and other services.

A young baby is being cradled by a woman.
Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger by Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obsomawin premieres this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Submitted by TIFF)

Obomsawin spoke to The Current's interim host Laura Lynch about how her own childhood experiences inspired her to make films about the challenges facing Indigenous people in Canada. Here is part of their conversation.

What kind of emotional journey is it for you when you immerse yourself in stories like this one?

Well nothing is easy, but I feel so strong about it, and I know I'm here because I'm one of those [children]. I wasn't a child with special needs, but I was certainly a child once, and I wasn't treated right at all. 

And this is why I revolt, especially against the educational system. For so many decades ... the history of Canada that they taught in the classroom officially, these books were written by the church. And then ... here I am, an "Indian." Like they said, Christopher Columbus who was lost, thought he was in India and the named stayed, became official. 

Well, you sit in the classroom and you are the only one that's "Indian," and you hear, "Oh, the savages. They really were so mean to the poor white people who came here, and they scalped them, and this language is Satan's language." 

This is how I was raised. This is what I heard in the classroom every day. I got beaten up so many times, until I started beating back.

Beaten up by who?

By children. By other children. You know, if you're in the classroom and the whole classroom is all white, and the teacher is saying how bad our people are, what do you think happens when you come out of the classroom? They're waiting for you. I didn't always know which corner, but I knew that they were going to be there. 

And this is why I care so much for children. And people tell me, "Alanis, why are you so good to children? They beat you up." Yes, but they weren't born thinking that way. 

It's their parents and it's the adults who taught them that. And it's the teachers in the classroom that made sure that these other children could feel superior to me. I was just a savage.

And [I asked myself], how can this change? And my answer was that children have to hear another story. 

And that's how I started to sing and talk about the history and tell stories. I [toured] hundreds and hundreds of schools in this country.

And I won. I was right.

Because now we are at a time, I think, across the country, [when] Canadians want to hear the real story of this country. "What's the history?" They want to know the real thing. They want to know what happened. 

And I think, in general, Canadians want to see justice done. And so it's a very different time. 

Especially the last five years with the reconciliation, [that] has done an awful lot of work and applied these changes that should have been made. And so what's happening now, never happened before.

You have a feeling Canadians are really listening to you now. Where 10 years ago they'd say, "Ah, the Indians, they're always complaining," and, "Oh, they're drunks," "Oh, they're lazy," — this is the language that we heard. Now it's different. 

And our people in court are being respected. And the treaties that .. tricked ... our people ... stole the lands, stole everything that has to do with natural resources. When you go to court now about a treaty it's a very different story. 

And in a lot of cases some justice is coming. Some land is going back [to Indigenous people] and some money is going back. And I'm so glad I've lived this long, to see the difference.

So, Alanis Obomsawin, at this age, are you hopeful?

It's more than hopeful. It's much more profound. 

I like to listen to our people. I listen for hours before I come in with a crew [to film]. To really understand. It's about a life. And for me life is sacred.

And the older the people are that talk to me, I'm always first of all wondering, how did they survive? Like what was it like? So [how they have survived is] just amazing. I find our people so beautiful. It's just that they don't know how beautiful they are.

Written by Allie Jaynes. Interview produced by Julie Crysler and Karin Marley. Q&A edited for length and clarity.