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We Met with the Filmmaker Who Changed the Way Canada Saw the Oka Crisis

Alanis Obomsawin's documentary Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance showed what really happened behind the blockades.
September 25, 2015, 3:16pm

Alanis Obomsawin sleeping during the Oka Crisis. Photos courtesy the National Film Board

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the resolution of the Oka Crisis, a land dispute that pitted the Mohawk reserve of Kanesatake against the nearby town of Oka. On a broader scale, the conflict has become emblematic of all First Nations' struggles against colonialism.

Starting in July 1990, the Oka standoff lasted nearly three months, escalating into a battle between the Canadian military and the Mohawk Warriors that set the stage for racism, violence and death.

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While a steady stream of journalists were parachuted into the community to cover the tensions, documentarian Alanis Obomsawin was the only journalist who spent the entire 78 days behind the barricades.

Her film, Kahnesatake: 270 Years of Resistance, has won numerous awards and is often credited as having changed the way First Nations issues are covered by the media.

VICE sat down with her at her office at the National Film Board to talk about the challenges of making the documentary, the aftermath of its broadcast and the legacy of Oka.

VICE: What does this anniversary evoke for you?
Alanis Obomsawin: Automatically, you remember what it was like and… [sighs].

It was hard?
Yeah, seeing all the hardship, covering something like that, the unjust press so many times, the public at large not understanding what the real story was. It was very difficult, especially living in Quebec, to receive a lot of negative comments. That was very much part of my everyday life for a while.

What did you think of the mainstream media's coverage of the Oka Crisis?
When you read an article, you knew if this person was there for a period of time or just for one day. A lot of the articles were done by reporters that were there perhaps a few days. I think there were a few reporters that were serious and tried to find out more than just the surface of things. Reporters came from different parts of the world to cover this, and it was… I don't know how to describe it. I'm afraid to say "unjust' although it was unjust in many cases. The image of the Warriors, people were aiming at the surface of things, the images of these men and their guns. So, at the beginning it was scary, it was almost like entertainment to certain people.

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In our case, it was more difficult because I myself had to sleep outside from September onward, with just a garbage bag on the floor. I also made myself a tent with a garbage bag—all clean bags though.

It was summer, but in the evening it got really cold. I had one blanket and there was not much of a facility for us. The last week they allowed us to go sleep in one of the buildings because it was so cold, so we were all lined up there. At the end there was about 12 or 15 of us left.

But the CBC, for instance, took all of their reporters out. They said, "There's going to be gunshots here and we don't want our employees there." I think there were 17 or 18 people who walked out.

And you stayed?
Yes, and at the end, I didn't even have a camera person anymore. The second one that came said, "I'm not staying here, I'm not a mercenary, it's going to be bad here and I'm leaving." Everybody thought there was going to be a shootout, eventually. During the time when the soldiers and the Warriors were often insulting each other, we were all scared that one would shoot one gun and then we'd be finished. It was like that the whole time—it was scary. But when two traditional chiefs came in, to be with the Warriors, then we saw a change.

What kind of change?
I think more of a spiritual change. A lot of [the Warriors] were sure there was going to be a battle and some of them were writing their wills, so we all thought, there's going to be a fight, and then who knows what's going to happen. But when the traditional chiefs came in they had a lot of meetings with the Warriors and they had ceremonies going on, and it totally changed the minds and the hearts of the Warriors. There was a lot of talk about the real reason they were there, and it certainly wasn't to kill and to be killed. It was for the land and the trees and what it meant to the people.

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I really saw a big change there, in the behaviour and the minds of the Warriors. They became more peaceful with themselves and the talk of shootouts stopped. When they decided to [end the standoff], they burned all their guns and stuff.

I would say that if it hadn't been for the traditional chiefs that came in, it would have ended very differently. It was still difficult when they all did walk out―there was the army there and they were arresting [the Warriors]―but at least there was no shootout.

How did it change you?
I felt more at peace and happier to see that the Warriors were starting to think differently. The cause they were standing for was great, and they were right. I was very impressed with their courage to stay to the end, and to face it. Everybody around the country, our communities really benefited from this.

There's no place that I go where they don't say to me, "I could never thank the Mohawks enough for their resistance." Because now, the government acts differently with us. It was a turning point because all the communities in the country, all the reserves, all went through these types of problems where the next-door community, smart politically, would acquire land that belonged to the People. This went on everywhere. This resistance really educated Canadians at large about what it means in terms of our People and the land, the territories.

It was a victory, but there was also a lot of trauma that went along with that. What was it like, the aftermath?
There was for sure, but at the same time, they won! The golf course was never enlarged and they never built those 65 houses they were supposed to build. This was the fight, this is why they did the resistance and they did win. Everybody benefited from that, but the Warriors, the people who started the resistance were the ones who were not always appreciated and went through a very hard time. But I think now, people think of it differently.

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Do you think that's in part because of your film?
I don't mean to praise myself, but certainly the film is important because it's historical. I not only made one, I made four films about the subject, and they're there for people to learn about what really happened. So I'm very happy about that. It really helped to educate people across the country, and to this day I'm constantly invited to discuss the film and answer questions.

What kinds of questions do you get asked?
Everybody wants to know what it's like now. The land issue was never resolved to this day. After the stand, the people who had houses in the area and didn't want to live there anymore wanted to sell their homes. And of course, [the land value] had depreciated and they were having a hard time selling. So they asked the federal government to buy these homes, which it did, and these houses and the land around them were returned to the Mohawks. But in terms of the territory, it's still not resolved.

What was it like, not just being a filmmaker covering this, but being a woman covering this?
Well, nothing is easy. Not only am I a woman but I'm an Indian woman, so that was tough in terms of how I was treated by the police and the soldiers. It was pretty bad at times. But there were some good things that happened too, from the police and from the soldiers. So… You just have to always go back to the root of things, why you do what you do, you just go to the end.

With all the battles going on now, with the pipelines especially, what do you think of the media coverage of those fights now? Do you think it's improved?
It's hard for me to tell you. I think there's some incredible things that are happening, when the Tsilhqot'in last summer won the title to their land. That took thirty years. And once they got it, they stopped the pipeline. So there's a lot of things going on pretty much all over [the country]. More and more, people are more aware of what the development of mines and stuff has done, what it can do and so it's not like before. People are much more aware, and know what those things are, so there's going to be changes for sure.

Do you think there could be another Oka crisis?
I would be surprised in a way; I think the government wouldn't like to see another story like that. But it's hard to tell.

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