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Alanis Obomsawin Documents a Crisis with 'The People of the Kattawapiskak River'

Filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin discusses her film The People of the Kattawapiskak River, a documentary about the crisis in the Attawapiskat First Nation

In October 2011, due to its unacceptable housing situation, the Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency, and a media feeding frenzy ensued over the tribe's living conditions. The Attawapiskat became a political talking point, a symbol of -- depending on your point of view -- everything that is wrong with the Canadian government, or with First Nations politics, or with the media itself.

Finger-pointing and slanted editorializing attracts television viewers and sells newspapers, but a problem such as the Attawapiskat crisis deserves a more profound examination. That's where Alanis Obomsawin‘s documentary The People of the Kattawapiskak River comes in. Obomsawin, who is of Abenaki descent, is a master documentarian who has made over 30 films in a career that spans 40 years, all on the theme of justice for aboriginal people.

The film premiered during the ImagiNative Festival in Toronto, and is currently available for rent or download from the the National Film Board of Canada website. Earlier this year, Obomsawin was included in the first showcase of indigenous filmmakers at the Berlin festival, where she spoke on a panel and screened her 1986 film Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis Child.

What is the origin of The people of the Kattawapiskak River?

I was working on another film, about the educational system in that community. In the course of the two years I was there, the housing emergency came up, and with it, the bad publicity about them, and their leadership. I saw how depressed the young were. A lot of awful things were spread by journalists, and appeared on Facebook -- all of that created a negative atmosphere in the community. That is how I decided to put my project aside, and start this one. I felt it was really needed. I had to help them. But do they have any means; can they build houses on their own? No -- there is no construction there. The area is “the end of the trees,” meaning there are not many trees. They do not have the finances to build real houses, nor the tools. They depend on the government, and finances are not enough. A thousand people still wait for houses. Those mobile homes were adequate at the start, but are not meant to last. That type of wood is not made for -50º C.

After 15 years of rental, they can own their homes -- but by then, they are shacks. It was below 50 when I went, the houses are not adapted to those temperatures, and the mobile homes last five years.

Alanis Obomsawin photographed by Dominique Godreche

Is this movie different from your previous ones in any way?

No. There is an injustice, and I did it for the same reasons: The survival of the people, justice. And it was important for the spirits of the community.

A member of the tribe once said: "It is in our blood to forget" -- what did she mean by that?

Well, they are constantly at the mercy of the government, accused of not doing things right. And they have to continue, to keep forgiving the accusations. That is what she meant.

Does the diamond factory de Beers, located 90 km away, employ Crees?

Some work there, but do not stay long. This mine is on their land, and they should have had better negotiations, including for housing. If they had a more just share from the profits, they would function better, in terms of housing, education, and so forth.

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How long did you spend on site?

I went six times, back and forth -- the shooting lasted about six weeks.

During the trial, in which the community was fighting the Canadian government's move of appointing of a community manager, the Tribe's lawyer said that the community was "traumatized" by the action. She also mentioned residential schools, and referred to the community as "survivors." What is your feeling about such statements of victimization?

It is true, they have a very bad life, have gone to residential schools, and what happened in those schools is horrifying. When you survive such situations, any difficulty has a different meaning, because of your own problems, as a survivor. So then comes this extra problem, in front of the world, the press conveying that "they are not able to take care of themselves."That is what she meant. Also, there is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which goes around all the communities, now, inviting the people who have attended residential schools to tell their stories in front of everybody. It is difficult, sensitive. There have been many suicides in the communities. And because Chief Theresa Spence made public an emergency, the government accused her of bad management, forcing a third party to go in there to manage their business. Such a big insult! The meaning was, "you are not doing your job properly, you use money badly." It created negative publicity in the country, and the community felt really bad.

One television journalist wondered, "why a sports complex, when they do not have houses?"

Yes! This journalist from Sun News, said, "how can they play hockey, when they do not have housing?" But that is the only thing the young have! Shacks and hockey -- and they are criticized! When it is very difficult for the young, in those isolated communities, where everything costs so much. We do not really know what goes on there, as they are so far away and isolated. That is why I did the movie.

Was it difficult to shoot during the trial? The Native lawyer, representing the community, insisted on their status of victims -- was the goal a financial, or symbolic reparation? 

The first half an hour, they tried to take me out. Trials are, supposedly, a healing process. And some received money, as there have been so many suicides in the communities. The people cannot live with that past. That lawyer was extraordinary -- and it is a traumatized community. Now that everybody speaks about the residential schools, stories are told. Many do not want to talk -- they were beaten, abused. Two thousand children died. A lot of parents do not even know what happened to their children. Some will not tell the abuse, because it is too hard to admit. Even the government, made an apology, a few years ago.

What about the situation today?

There are a lot of claims; many fight for changes, and it happens. But education remains the problem, as the young do not have the same finances as others. There are deficits. I am presently preparing a movie on educational issues in this young community, where, like in many others, the majority of the population is under 25. My favorite topic has always been children and education -- what do we do for them?

So, how do you feel, today, about this documentary?

I am happy it helped, as all those ugly things said on Facebook and in the media hurt the people, and the accusations against their leader -- "you stole the money, how come you live in shacks?" But I saw how it really goes in the community, and I admired them: How they try to keep the young busy every night, how hard it is to achieve, to organize games, so that they would not be left in bad shape. This community works hard at it. Everything is done so that the community remains in good health. Each night, they organize hockey parties and dances. It's a lot of work! It is extraordinary how much they love their youth, showing their constant capacity to imagine something new. And when anything bad happens, everybody helps. I was moved by their generosity. There is a lot of beauty in poverty. Someone from Los Angeles asked me, "How could you make such a beautiful film with such an ugly subject?" Well, I see those people caring for each other as beautiful -- and that is how I did the movie. Just look around you, you will see beauty.