Two-thirds of the way through Alanis Obomsawin’s new documentary on Attawapiskat, The People of the Kattawapiskak River, a young man named Wayne Fireman gives the filmmaker a tour of the shabby house where he lives with his four small children. Pieces of plywood and chipboard cover areas in the floor and walls where dampness from the subarctic muskeg has destroyed the original materials. The ceiling in his bedroom is burnt out from an electrical fire caused by leaks in the roof. His family is essentially camping in a condemned house in a bleak-looking northern community, but Fireman isn’t thinking about leaving.
“I don’t want to move to another town or other place,” he says quietly. “ I like living here. This is where my family, my mom and dad were brought up … I would love to live here if I could get a new house.”
The comment sounds different now than it might have even when Obomsawin’s camera came to visit, after Attawapiskat sprang into national consciousness 13 months ago. Back then, the Northern Ontario Cree community and its chief Theresa Spence were mostly portrayed as supplicants. Now, with the rise of the Idle No More movement, a different side of native Canada has marched into view – determined, not passive; insistent, not patient.
Changing the angle of view is, of course, part of the point of the movement. Native people have seldom had much control over their role in the media landscape, which usually allows just two options: victim or warrior. The two were already latent in Edward S. Curtis’s century-old photo portraits of native people, whose evident sense of identity was framed by the photographer’s controlling belief that the world he was capturing with his lens – and in some cases, stage-managing – was about to be swept away.
Obomsawin’s The People of the Kattawapiskak River is a timely update on some of the conditions that got us to the present situation, though the swift pace of recent events – Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, flash-mob demonstrations across Canada, road and railway blockades – make the 50-minute documentary feel like a time capsule from a more remote past. The energy and fervour of the protests come from a different place than the film’s understated rhetoric, and its overall sense that although much should change for the people of Attawapiskat, probably nothing will.
And yet you can see how Obomsawin has tried to break from the constraints of the victim/warrior option. It’s not easy: Every time one of her subjects displays the cramped, unheated, temporary digs they’re obliged to call home, the viewer’s power to inspect eclipses the feeble agency of the viewed. But they’re always given room to show some source of strength, in the children they cuddle, in Fireman’s rootedness in place and family, in one elder’s comment, as he stokes a wood stove made from an oil barrel, that he feels stronger when he goes into the woods. Rosie Koostachin lives in a tiny shed with no running water, but she emerges as a thoughtful leader who raises funds for the community and feeds others with game her husband brings home.
Facts and figures are sprinkled in, about the cost of milk in Attawapiskat (over $9 a litre), about the De Beers Canada diamond mine that can dig up 600,000 karats a year on nearby native territory, and about how much reserve land Treaty No. 9, written in 1905-1906, sets out for the James Bay Cree: one square mile per family of five, Obomsawin says. (The treaty, however, says the land is “not to exceed” a square mile, slyly limiting the upper range but not the lower.) But Obomsawin’s main objective is to make us see the people of Attawapiskat differently. The emphasis, ultimately, is not so much on looking as on listening – the first stage in changing the conversation, or in making one possible. Unease with what goes out through the usual media channels may have been a factor in last week’s banning of a southern TV crew from the reserve.
The reigning caricature of the people and their town was burlesqued on Twitter this week as Ottawapiskat, a grossly dependent southern settlement with an over-reaching chief. “You can become the majority leader of #Ottawapiskat with only 33% of band members voting for you,” tweeted Anishinaabekwe/Nehayowak singer Tara Williamson. “#Ottawapiskat debt hovering around $600,000,000,000. Might be time for a third-party manager,” wrote Anishinaabe writer and academic Hayden King.
Ottawapiskat is funny because we know so very much about our capital and its political chief. When that kind of distortion ceases to be funny is when it’s projected on people who live in remote areas that most of us never see. Whatever Spence’s shortcomings may be as a band manager, she has a knack for dramatic gestures that confuse the powerful. While they’re regaining their composure, Obomsawin’s film may help non-natives like me attain a better, fairer picture of aboriginal people.
The People of the Kattawapiskak River is on view for free at nfb.ca through Friday.