In 2007, two aboriginal groups brought a human rights complaint against the federal government, alleging its child welfare policies discriminate against First Nations children. By limiting the federal funding available, the government deprived children on reserves of the level of service provided by provincial and territorial governments to non-aboriginal children and aboriginal children off the reserves. Furthermore, the federal policies were encouraging child welfare authorities to place First Nations children in foster care because they didn't have the resources to intervene with the families.
It seemed like an issue of basic fairness but the federal government proceeded to fight tooth and nail, dragging out the case with a series of jurisdictional disputes and appeals for six years. In 2013, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society finally made it before a human rights tribunal, which ruled in their favour last January.
Veteran Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin was in the courts and the hearing rooms with her camera and has produced We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice for the National Film Board of Canada. The film, made up largely of testimony at the various hearings, is an odd example of form matching content: It will take a committed audience to sit through two hours and 45 minutes of dry legal arguments and administrative minutiae often well removed from the tragic tales of the children in question, but those viewers who do will experience for themselves the frustration and outrage engendered by this mind-numbingly bureaucratic approach to a human crisis. If there was any strong argument to be made in the government's favour, Obomsawin doesn't show it: in her film, the lawyers and bureaucrats defending federal policies mainly look sheepish.
Once the tribunal did finally take the case, it clearly made a decision all voices were to be heard and at length; Obomsawin honours that approach, which often makes the film ponderously discursive. So, although the government argued that evidence about the residential schools would be prejudicial to its case, that topic was admitted, and we hear both a scholar's lengthy history of the schools and one survivor's detailed experience. Some editing would have brought the film more dramatically to the point: that foster care is now replicating the residential school trauma. "We can't make the same mistake twice," says Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of B.C.'s Gwawaenuk nation, native activist and residential school survivor.
On the other hand, a long section about Jordan's Principle – that jurisdictional disputes should not be allowed to delay payment – builds slowly but relentlessly toward a devastating indictment of Ottawa's penny-pinching motivations. The House of Commons had voted unanimously to adopt Jordan's Principle, so named for a seriously ill child who spent the entire five years of his life in a Winnipeg hospital because no one could agree which level of government was to pay for his care if he was discharged. But the federal bureaucrats applied the new principle so narrowly that an $11-million fund set aside to cover its costs was never needed. In the film's most bitter moment, an Indigenous Affairs official explains how the team who worked on applying Jordan's Principle, which the government has avoided recognizing in a single case, was awarded a public service prize.
The star of this doc is Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the Caring Society, who is shown year after year fighting for a better outcome for First Nations children. But it is David Nahwegahbow, lawyer for the Assembly of First Nations, who summarizes the film's impact when he says that aboriginal people have no understanding of an agreement in which all the other party does is attempt to wiggle through loopholes. After years of Conservative stalling on this file, the new Liberal government embraced the tribunal's decision but it remains to be seen how much real progress is being made. With Canada's 150th approaching, there is much talk of reconciliation with aboriginal people: Obomsawin has painstakingly exposed the official attitudes that might get in the way.
We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice screens Oct. 22, 10 a.m., at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival (imaginenative.org).