Canadian Cinema: Alanis Obomsawin’s Early Films

By the time Alanis Obomsawin made her first film for the NFB, she was a well-known and well-respected First Nations singer and community educator. Writers such as Jerry White have noted that the many facets of Obomsawin’s career are all deeply connected and are part of her life’s goal to tell the stories of First Nations people across Canada. Her films can be used as powerful educational tools, showing young Canadians the violence and injustice that has been done to Native peoples since white European colonizers first arrived on their land in the late 15th century. Obomsawin shows us time and time again that violence and racism against First Nations people are still prevalent today, and throughout all of Canadian history.

Obomsawin makes documentaries, and was inspired by NFB Commissioner and filmmaker John Grierson. She was inspired by his notions that poor people should be given a voice, and be given the chance to be seen in the cinema. Representation is powerful, and Obomsawin is acutely aware of that. She has made it her life’s project to tell the stories of Native peoples in Canada – to portray onscreen the often painful experiences of people who are marginalized on their own territory. Her films are deeply political and deeply subjective – Adrian Harewood writes that her films act as a corrective to the fact that Native subjectivity is basically absent from cinema history. Obomsawin sits quietly behind the camera, letting her subjects speak at length about their personal experiences as Native Canadians. Jerry White notes that she makes her presence known through her voiceovers, and by sometimes turning the camera to face herself, so we know she is present. She is truly an “auteur”, a director whose personal and political world-view are tied together and represented in her films.

The first film she made for the NFB is Christmas at Moose Factory (1971), composed of images of children’s drawings with a voiceover by a little girl sharing her favourite rituals and memories of Christmas time. The experiences she shares are specific to the Cree people who live in Moose Factory, Ontario, near James Bay. She narrates an encounter with a bear, and talks about the joys of tobogganing. She talks about the Christmas presents she wanted, and the happiness she feels when she receives all of the things she asked for. Many children share their wonder of having a Christmas tree with a golden star on top. The combination of her voice and these images provide us with a sense of intimacy. We get to know and see what Christmas is like for the Native children in this community, and then Obomsawin shows still photographs of them smiling for the camera. This is one of Obomsawin’s most joyous films, and it gives detached viewers a truthful look at Native Canadian life in only 13 minutes.

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Photo from the NFB

In 1984, she made Incident at Restigouche, about the 1981 raids on the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation by the Sûreté du Québec. This was a violent, unjust attempt by the white Québec government to prevent the First Nations people from fishing for salmon in the Restigouche River – which rightfully belongs to the Mi’gmaq. Obomsawin uses black and white photos of the QPP exerting force over the Mi’gmaq people of Restigouche and their land, and includes many interviews with residents of the reservation, on what they remember about the raids. She highlights the excessive force the police used, and many residents note that their fishing nets were completely destroyed. The Mi’gmaq people of this area depend on salmon fishing for money, and as a source of food. There is absolutely no reason why their fishing should be restricted or controlled in any way, since it is their territory. Obomsawin interviews Minister of Fisheries Lucien Lassard, and calls him out for his racist and incorrect ideas about how Native people cannot have sovereignty since they do not have their own language, land, and culture. She rightfully points out the hypocrisy of Québec fighting for sovereignty at the same time as it suppresses Native peoples. This film is a powerful document exposing the racism present within the Canadian government – in this case, specifically the Québec government.

One of Obomsawin’s most heartbreaking films is Richard Cardinal: Cry from the Diary of a Métis Child (1986) – even more heartbreaking considering its current relevance. Richard Cardinal was a young Métis boy who was taken from his parents (along with his siblings) when he was 4 years old, where he would go on to live in 28 different foster homes. Richard committed suicide when he was 17 years old – a result of the painful dislocation of being passed off to different foster homes and institutions and the trauma of being separated from his community and his family.

Obomsawin interviews his older brother Charlie Cardinal, as well as a number of Richard’s previous foster parents. She punctuates the interviews with scenes of a little boy representing a young Richard, who enacts experiences read in voiceover from Richard’s diary which he left behind. The diary expresses deep pain and isolation, and Richard’s longing for a sense of identity and family. Richard’s experiences are a result of the extremely poor child welfare services for Native children in Alberta. Children are traumatically taken from their parents and separated from their communities and siblings. Charlie Cardinal notes that Richard was depressed for his entire life, and that the siblings were happiest when they lived in a foster home together. Richard’s previous foster parents express frustration at Richard’s bed-wetting (which is a symptom of trauma in children), and concern over his mental health. But there were no good resources available for Richard to get help for his depression and suicidal impulses, and when he attempted suicide, he was released from the hospital a few days later. Obomsawin highlights the emotional and heartbreaking aspects of this story, and calls attention to the way Native children are mistreated and ignored in this country.

In 1988, she made No Address, a film which brings attention to homeless Native people living in Montréal. Obomsawin interviews a number of homeless men and women, as well as people who work at the Native Friendship Center in Montréal. The Friendship Center provides workshops on drug and alcohol addiction, and a sense of community for those who have left their families and their old homes behind and who now feel incredibly isolated. Members of the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve hosted a fundraising radio event in the hopes of receiving enough money to construct a homeless shelter for Native women in Montréal – as they note, Native men and women have much different basic needs than other people in Montréal do, and should have a place to stay and find comfort. Many homeless Native people live in abandoned buildings or have to sleep outside. Some of them even express that they would not mind being put in jail, simply to have a place to sleep. Obomsawin also notes that women become prostitutes, not as a profession, but just so they can meet their basic needs and have a place to sleep. Obomsawin suggests throughout the film that there are things which can be done to ease this problem – the shelter proposed by the Kahnawake, and providing other homeless shelters with funding for comfortable beds for anyone to stay in for free. One women notes that she feels depressed every day, like she is “falling in a hole” – this is yet another instance where Native Canadians’ mental health needs to be addressed and prioritized.

Alanis Obomsawin’s early films are mostly shorts, and represent the beginning of a career which prioritizes the telling of Native stories by Native people. She interviews women, men, elderly people, and young people. She interviews white government officials, and the white foster parents who took care of Richard Cardinal. Obomsawin consistently provides detailed and emotional accounts of the Native experience in Canada, and all the injustices her people endure every single day, all throughout history. Her interviews reveal that Native people are acutely aware that Canada is their territory which was taken from them, and they are to this day marginalized in the country they inhabited before any white European people. These are incredible, political, educational films with an important emotional and subjective undercurrent. I have only outlined a few of her early films, in order to bring attention to the kind of mature and self-assured work Alanis Obomsawin was doing from the beginning of her career as a filmmaker. She is perhaps the best evidence that the NFB is an important, essential institution for Canadian film.

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