In the 1960s Alanis Obomsawin spent a lot of time in courtrooms, observing. She would sit and watch lineups of aboriginal defendants, mostly men, with their heads down. One after the other the verdicts would come: guilty, guilty, guilty. “They had no words and there were no voices,” she told me when we met recently in Toronto.
Now, with four decades of filmmaking under her belt, the indigenous singer, artist, activist, and storyteller of Abenaki descent has seen her fair share of indigenous struggle, “Poverty, hurt… all terrible stuff.” But she also sees hope, and it’s this unbounded optimism that keeps her making films.
Her brilliant 1993 documentary on the Oka crisis Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance is elementary viewing for anyone interested in understanding aboriginal protest in Canada. Her latest film Trick or Treaty, which recently premiered at TIFF, examines the twisted history of Treaty 9—the infamous century-old agreement wherein First Nations communities allegedly relinquished sovereignty over their land.
Set against the backdrop of the growing Idle No More movement and the actions of Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence, Obomsawin digs deep to reveal the inherent problems of the signing of the treaty and the lengths the Canadian government have gone to manipulate the agreement for their own ends. I sat down with Alanis in the offices of the National Film Board to discuss her latest work, and how aboriginal struggle has changed over the last 40 years.
VICE: There are many ways to approach indigenous resistance, but you decided to focus on treaties, why?
Alanis Obomsawin: “Treaty” is a very important word, first of all. When you speak to anybody in the country about a treaty, they say, “What’s that?” To them, it’s gone or it’s finished, you don’t have to even mention it. And those people are in different provinces where they are treaty people—[and to those people] it’s very important, and it has affected their lives all this time up to today. So a treaty is a very important thing that people should know about, and we have to educate them, because they obviously know nothing.
Your film reveals that Treaty 9 was signed under sort of false pretenses where indigenous peoples signing didn’t really recognize the text; they were never told what the document contained. Given written evidence of this and the possibility of now entering oral histories into the court system after Delgamuuwk, what do you think the next steps are towards rectifying this?
I might not see this in my lifetime, but I know that somehow this is going to be in court one day and that the government and the law are going to recognize and respect the people who were told something and signed something else. It’s very easy for the government to say, “It’s signed… that’s it.” But it’s not. And I think eventually it will go back to court, and there will be discussions, and justice will be done.
What kind of damage has been done to the land in Treaty 9 areas?
I know from things that I’ve read here and there that on the Ontario side, I think there’s more than 800 places where development occurred and then they left, and left a mess and poisoned water. It’s almost as high in Quebec. Something has to be done to show people what happens when they leave.
All photos via the National Film Board.
Your film Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance covered one of the most famous blockades in Canadian aboriginal history. We’re now seeing many similar environmental blockades popping up across the country. Do you think that the current Harper government would engage indigenous protestors with military force as they did in Oka?
When Kanehsatake occurred, the community had gone through problems where the next-door municipality got land or tried to get land. But it was always unknown and people had no defence. But since then, no matter where I go in the country still to this day, people say to me: “We could never thank the Mohawks enough.” Because when the government addresses us now, it’s different, because they know the capacity and what can happen, and they don’t want to see any barricades like that. There will be, but I think that people have acquired seriousness about the land issue and the waters. Before people were just laughing at us. It’s a different time now, very different.
Certainly you were active when indigenous peoples couldn’t even legally hire lawyers, so that’s an enormous change.
I’ve witnessed incredible stuff. Most regular people don’t know anything about the history, our history was banished, and they taught lies in the classroom. When you realize that the actual program to teach Canadian history was designed to diminish our people—dismiss them, make them invisible, and to hate them—they were teaching children how to hate children that are indigenous. But you think I understood that at the time? No. It took me a long time to figure this out.
There are two versions of history in the film: there’s the written, colonial history, and there’s the oral indigenous history. Much of your work seems to try and debunk colonial myths.
It’s very hard because we’ve been so colonized ourselves that some of us don’t see the difference. When you’re in it, you don’t even question what happens, you’re just surviving every day. Then when you finally discover what the colonizers did to us, and you understand the design of it: to get rid of you, to demolish whatever you are, to make sure you stay inferior, to make sure you don’t speak those languages. They gave us something that was not ours, people had to adapt these strangers’ lives for themselves—and it didn’t work out. We had a lot of tragedy, we still do… people dealing with suicide, it’s awful. And I think now that’s sort of the end of that.
I’m not saying that tomorrow or today it’s finished, no, but it’s coming to an end. And people are not afraid.
Look at what happened in BC, with the court case there. It’s incredible that now that nation, that land, it’s theirs, and they can decide whether developing is going to be there or not. Can you imagine that? It’s a long time coming. So there are many good things happening all over.
In an ideal world, what would the treaties and the land sharing look like for you?
I think that the people should have recognition into taking care of their own land, and decide who’s going to come in or not to do development and how. That nothing should be done to damage the life of water and the earth. And I think that’s always been taught to us all the time, long before the newcomers came here. We have to go back to this way of thinking.
Protecting the land is obviously important, that’s where we go first, and the waters. Because at the end of all this, you can have lots of money and be a billionaire all you like. But if there’s no fish to eat, if there’s no meat to eat, you can’t eat your money. And people have to start thinking about that to get away from making money a goal here. But for some people they never see this and they never will, because they don't have to, and they’re very greedy and they take—that’s the way they were educated.
So these kinds of people never think that what they call us—the little people—are ever going to have equal rights and be capable of facing them. And they made a mistake. It’s going to happen more and more.
Let’s go back to Trick or Treaty, what do you hope people will take away from the film?
What I’ve always wanted the most is for [aboriginal] people to be treated as people, and as much as they’ve tried to crush them, somehow, I think the dignity is still there. It’s different now and there’s so much will to make sure that this stops. I end the film with drums, because when settlers first went to Osnaburgh to get the treaty signed, Duncan Campbell Scott was furious because he was hearing a drum. And he reprimanded them and threatened them that if this was going to happen again, they would go to jail. And I believe that nobody ever is going to kill that sound because for us, the sound of the drum is the sound of life, it’s the sound of the heart, and it’s always going to be there. They really tried to kill that; they made laws about it.