Documentarian Alanis Obomsawin discusses Our People Will Be Healed, depicting community, gaining the trust of her subjects, and centering their voices in her 50th film on contemporary indigenous issues in Canada. This is an excerpt from our ebook In Their Own Words: Documentary Masters Vol 1, which is available to purchase here.
In Our People Will Be Healed, Alanis Obomsawin interviews students, teachers, parents, and elders of the Cree community of Norway House, about the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre, a Nursery to Grade 12 school for over 1300 students in Manitoba. Obomsawin’s focus is on how the local school is lifting up the entire community. Unlike many schools in northern reserves, this one has a similar budget as the province’s others schools, which has enabled the school to invest in programs to make it more culturally relevant to the community. The school’s success, the film suggests, demonstrates that if only given an equitable chance, indigenous communities can heal from decades of abuse and neglect. This message rebuts common conservative arguments in Canadian media that government funding in indigenous communities perpetuates social problems by feeding a cycle of dependence.
Our People Will Be Healed is legendary Abenaki documentarian Obomsawin’s 50th film on contemporary indigenous issues made over her 50 years working for the Canadian National Film Board. It is the fourth entry in Obomsawin’s planned five-film cycle about how indigenous education and children’s rights are often still ignored by Canadian governments, despite promises. While each of the first three films stand alone, their themes provide essential context for the rarity of the success depicted in Our People Will Be Healed. Without this context, Our People Will Be Healed would seem misleadingly optimistic viewed on its own.'I don’t interpret. It’s the people who speak for themselves. I’m very careful about that.'Click To Tweet
The first film, The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012), focused on Attawapiskat, Ontario, an impoverished community that never received the government support promised under their treaty agreement. Hi-Ho Mistahey! (2013) followed the Shannen’s Dream movement for equal education funding. At the time, on-reserve schools received up to $3000 less per student than off-reserve schools.
We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice (2015) followed a court battle, by the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, on equitable access to all government funded services for indigenous children. The case sought to enforce a bill called “Jordan’s Principle”, named after Jordan River Anderson, a disabled indigenous boy who died after living all five of his years in hospital while the federal and provincial governments argued over who would pay for the necessary home care. Jordan’s Principle would ensure that funding gets delivered first; only later would the levels of government settle who was responsible for it. Jordan Anderson will be the subject of Obomsawin’s next film, which is the planned conclusion of this cycle.'I never tire of listening to people. I love to listen to how people survive all kinds of things.'Click To Tweet
Obomsawin first travelled to Norway House while researching Jordan’s Principle. She “really fell in love with the children, and the school”. Here, Obomsawin found a counterpoint to the lack of funding and resources seen in other communities like Attawapiskat. “I’ve done hundreds of schools in my lifetime. Before making films, I was talking to students in the classroom. And I’ve never encountered such a school as I did in Norway House. It was very avant-garde and exciting to see the possibilities that should be there for all.”
For over 100 years, the Canadian government forced indigenous children into residential schools, where they were beaten for speaking their own language or recalling their own culture. While this attempt at cultural genocide ended near the close of the 20th century, schooling continues to be traumatic for indigenous communities. There is little support from the government for on-reserve schools to create a system that actually works for indigenous communities.
To read the rest of the interview with Alanis Obomsawin, purchase a copy of the ebook Documentary Masters: Vol. 1 here.