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Tasha Hubbard's nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up tells the story of Colten Boushie, a young Cree man from Saskatchewan, who was killed on Gerald Stanley's farm in 2016.Courtesy of Hot Docs

This year, the Hot Docs film festival is making history – even though it is the kind of history that should have been made long ago.

On Thursday night, the 2019 edition of the Toronto festival opens with nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up, documentarian Tasha Hubbard’s searing look at the 2016 killing of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan, and the outcry that resulted after Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder in the 22-year-old Cree man’s death. The screening marks the first time that a film by an Indigenous director has opened Hot Docs in its 26-year history.

“This isn’t directed at Hot Docs or any other mainstream festival, but while I’m happy that our film is here, I’m a little surprised it took such a long time to get here,” says Hubbard, whose previous film, Birth of a Family, screened but did not open the 2017 edition of Hot Docs. “There’s different layers to it. There’s me as a filmmaker going, yeah, this is good because I want other Indigenous filmmakers to have access to these spaces as well. But on another deeper level, it just breaks my heart that people in this country can look at Indigenous people as not worth anything.”

Ahead of nipawistamasowin’s world premiere, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz spoke with Hubbard about the importance of having Indigenous artists tell Indigenous stories and how she wove her own history into that of the Boushie family’s.

Hubbard poses for a portrait in Toronto, on April 10, 2019.Galit Rodan

You narrate We Will Stand Up, and also weave in your own family history into that of Colten’s. How did you balance your responsibility as a documentary filmmaker with telling your own story?

The circumstances of my upbringing – being Cree but being adopted out to a white family – I’d brought that perspective to my other films, in a way. But I thought those stories didn’t need me. Here, though, I felt such a personal response to what happened to Colten. I also thought, what is this going to mean for those of us who are living on the Prairies who are Indigenous? We know that our stories aren’t listened to in the same way. I decided I wanted to speak in my own voice in the film, to speak to how this case affects all of us. It’s not just this one family going through this ordeal. We see ourselves in them. I wanted the film to help viewers do the same.

What was it like being so close to the Boushie family during Stanley’s trial?

Nothing I experienced can be compared to what they went through. Yet at the same time that they’re going through this nightmare, they’re always checking in on me. “Are you okay, are you alright?” [Laughs] I was okay, and even if I wasn’t okay, I wasn’t going to put that on them. But that’s the kind of people they are. Someone said to me during filming, “You chose to be here, you didn’t have to be here with us.” My birth dad is also married to the cousin of [Debbie Baptiste, Colten’s mother], so they knew me and they knew my work. These stories get covered by the media, but it’s a different thing to have our own people tell our own stories.

And then your timeline completely changed midway through filming ...

When the verdict came down, we were supposed to be done. Everyone assumed that the outcome would be at least manslaughter. So, we had two days scheduled to gather final thoughts. Then I had to rearrange my life. But [the family] appreciated the time that I took to tell the story, that I didn’t just parachute in and get my interview and go off. It wasn’t going to be a [feature-length doc] until the end. When they go to Ottawa, I realized I had a lot more material, and there was no way I could possibly tell this story in 44 minutes. It was originally supposed to be a one-hour television documentary.

The premiere of nîpawistamâsowin marks the first time a work by an Indigenous filmmaker has opened the Hot Docs festival.Courtesy of Hot Docs

What is your ultimate goal for the film?

Sometimes I think, what do I actually contribute? Would my energy be better served by being on the ground [in the community]? But for whatever reason, this is the path I’ve been on, and the path I’ve been invited onto and been supported on. This film is my contribution. It’s not the solution. Sometimes, people want films to do more than they can do. I want the film to help shift perceptions, even if it’s just a little bit in a certain audience member. We have to find our way through it, and that’s what I say to my son and nephew: We’re only here because the people before us fought hard. We owe it to them to keep going forward and to keep creating space for ourselves in our own land.

Are you optimistic?

I’m trying to find my way to that. We can’t stay in cynicism, and that’s where I get overwhelmed. I think about the talent and the intelligence and the ingenuity that is present in Indigenous communities, and ... can you imagine if we didn’t have to deal with colonialism all the time? Can you imagine what things would look like? So, it’s a question of what can I do to create that space for that to flourish. It’s why I wanted to put my son and nephew in the film, so see them as that path forward.

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Hubbard says she hopes the film will 'shift perceptions, even if it’s just a little bit in a certain audience member.'Courtesy of Hot Docs

In your career, do you feel you’ve been given enough support as a filmmaker to tell the stories you want to tell?

There is a realization that’s starting to go through the industry. It’s part of that colonial legacy of us being kept from telling our own stories, whether in publishing, film, you name it. But there are people in decision-making places who are going, okay, there has to be some space made here. It’s happening, and there’s more and more features being made in this country. But there’s push-back, too, when people who are used to having all the space, they feel a little weird having a little less.

Late in the film, there is footage of [then-justice minister] Jody Wilson-Raybould and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking about the case. How do you feel about looking at that today, in light of all the news that has since come out of Ottawa?

It makes me wish that these issues just transcend the political systems. It's tough, because it's not the first time that an Indigenous family or organization starts to make some progress or starts to get heard by someone in a position of power, and then something changes and it's somebody else, and maybe that person has to start over. Here's where I try to be optimistic and say that what needs to happen is that it becomes political will, and not just capital-P political, because things only change when enough people push for it. And Indigenous people have been pushing this forever. We have the [Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples] from 1996, and it had a lot of recommendations in the justice system. I wonder how many people who get the justice portfolio read that.

How do you think Indigenous audiences will respond to the film?

It’s not easy for Indigenous people to agree to be part of films like this, but they do so for the reasons I’ve been talking about. I still wonder if I could do it if it was my own child who was killed. If I could take my own experience and pain and not dwell on that, but think about who is coming next. And I don’t want this point to get lost: We have a system where, for when the media covers film festivals, it’s about the filmmaker. It can’t be about that. I don’t want it to be about that. I want people to watch this and think about their own families and have empathy. Especially people who have power: use it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up screens at the Hot Docs film festival April 25, 9:45 p.m., Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; April 27, 1 p.m., Lightbox; and May 4, 10 a.m., Isabel Bader Theatre. The film also screens at Vancouver’s DOXA film festival May 8 and May 9.