Through her creative lens, Alanis Obomsawin gives Indigenous people the chance to share their stories, sheds light on injustices, and calls for redress on issues that impact the health and well-being of children. Her films generate discussion, and create space for learning and healing. They inform and inspire, build community, and empower others to stand up for what they know is right.
For example, her documentary Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child looks into the life of a young Métis boy who committed suicide while in foster care. Although this film was released more than three decades ago, Richard Cardinal’s story is a tragedy all too relevant today as Aboriginal children and youth continue to be removed from their family homes and communities, and face heightened risk for mental ill-being, substance misuse and violence.
In 1990, Canadian television screens erupted with images of the Oka Crisis—as the Mohawks protested further encroachment and appropriation of traditional lands by colonial and economic interests. The Canadian government sent in the army to disrupt the Mohawk protest and free the land for development. Alanis braved the violence and spent 78 days filming the standoff. Three years later, her blockbuster documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance offered the Canadian public and the world a fuller picture of the Oka Crisis from behind Mohawk resistance lines.
Hi-Ho Mistahey!, released in 2013, tells the story of Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat and her dream for equitable education. In 2011, Alanis accompanied Shannen and five other youth as they travelled to Niagara Falls to speak to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child about the everyday challenges facing First Nations communities. Shannen had experienced first-hand the grim consequences of the federal government’s underfunding of First Nations education. Her community’s elementary school shut down in 2000 after the soil had been contaminated by a diesel oil spill. The government of Canada sent up “temporary” portable trailers and set them up on the playground of the contaminated school yard. It wasn’t long before the portables deteriorated under the northern weather conditions. Heating systems would fail regularly causing ice build ups on the doors, and the portables became infested with rodents and black mold. Shannen believed every child in Canada deserved a safe and comfy school. She made a YouTube video of the appalling conditions in Attawapiskat and invited students across Canada to write to the government and demand a proper school. This call to action resulted in the largest child- and youth-led human rights campaign in Canadian history: Shannen’s Dream. When Shannen tragically passed away in a car accident at the age of 15, the young people she inspired vowed to keep her dream alive.
To quote Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Wilton Littlechild, “Reconciliation has no finish line.” Neither does Alanis’s dedication to justice for Aboriginal children. Her two upcoming documentaries, Children’s Court Case (2016) and Norway House(2017) will shed light on the fight for equitable funding for child and family services on reserves, and equitable access to service for First Nations.
For Alanis, courage is not a descriptor; it is a way of life. She tells the stories we need to hear and wish were not true. Like Dr. Peter Bryce, Alanis demonstrates leadership, integrity, moral courage and unwavering determination in advocating for the safety, health and well-being of Indigenous children. She inspires others to have the courage to stand up for justice, and help this generation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children have the same chances to succeed as their non-Indigenous peers.
As Alanis says, “We can’t allow terrible things to take over our minds and become victims. We have to use hardship to make us stronger so we can fight for a better place for everyone.”
Through her life’s work, Alanis is helping to shift the hearts and minds of Canadians from a position of indifference to one of reconciliation. The P.H. Bryce Award acknowledges her work to improve the lives of Indigenous children.