On June 11 and 20, 1981, the Quebec Provincial Police (QPP) raided Restigouche Reserve, Quebec. At issue were the salmon-fishing rights of the Mi’kmaq. Because salmon has traditionally been a source of food and income for the Mi’kmaq, the Quebec government’s decision to restrict fishing aroused consternation and anger. Released in 1984, this groundbreaking and impassioned account of the police raids brought Alanis Obomsawin to international attention. The film features a remarkable on-camera exchange between Obomsawin herself and provincial Minister of Fisheries Lucien Lessard, the man who’d ordered the raid. Decades later, Jeff Barnaby, director of Rhymes for Young Ghouls, cited the film as an inspiration. “That documentary encapsulated the idea of films being a form of social protest for me... It started right there with that film.”
In this feature-length documentary by Alanis Obomsawin, it's the summer of 2000 and the country watches in disbelief as federal fisheries wage war on the Mi'kmaq fishermen of Burnt Church, New Brunswick. Why would officials of the Canadian government attack citizens for exercising rights that had been affirmed by the highest court in the land? Casting her cinematic and intellectual nets into history to provide context, Obomsawin delineates the complex roots of the conflict with passion and clarity, building a persuasive defence of the Mi'kmaq position.
In July 1990, a dispute over a proposed golf course to be built on Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk) lands in Oka, Quebec, set the stage for a historic confrontation that would grab international headlines and sear itself into the Canadian consciousness. Director Alanis Obomsawin—at times with a small crew, at times alone—spent 78 days behind Kanien’kéhaka lines filming the armed standoff between protestors, the Quebec police and the Canadian army. Released in 1993, this landmark documentary has been seen around the world, winning over a dozen international awards and making history at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it became the first documentary ever to win the Best Canadian Feature award. Jesse Wente, Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office, has called it a “watershed film in the history of First Peoples cinema.”
Covering a vast swath of northern Ontario, Treaty No. 9 reflects the often contradictory interpretations of treaties between First Nations and the Crown. To the Canadian government, this treaty represents a surrendering of Indigenous sovereignty, while the descendants of the Cree signatories contend its original purpose to share the land and its resources has been misunderstood and not upheld. Enlightening as it is entertaining, Trick or Treaty? succinctly and powerfully portrays one community’s attempts to enforce their treaty rights and protect their lands, while also revealing the complexities of contemporary treaty agreements. Trick or Treaty? made history as the first film by an Indigenous filmmaker to be part of the Masters section at TIFF when it screened there in 2014.
Also available on the Alanis Obomsawin: A Legacy DVD box set
In this feature-length documentary, Indigenous filmmaker and artist Alanis Obomsawin chronicles the determination and tenacity of the Listuguj Mi'kmaq people to use and manage the natural resources of their traditional lands. The film provides a contemporary perspective on the Mi'kmaq people's ongoing struggle and ultimate success, culminating in the community receiving an award for Best Managed River from the same government that had denied their traditional rights.
Stories of resistance, strength and perseverance are laid bare in this examination of a dark day in Canadian history. At the height of tensions at Oka, Quebec, in 1990, Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) women, children and Elders fled their community of Kahnawake out of fear for their safety. Once past the Canadian Army that surrounded their home, they were assaulted by angry non-Indigenous protesters who pelted their convoy with rocks. This visceral display of hatred and violence – rarely seen so publicly in Canada – shocked the nation and revealed the severity of the dangers that faced the Kanien’kehá:ka in their struggle to defend a sacred site.
This film is the fourth in Alanis Obomsawin’s landmark series on the Mohawk resistance at Oka that would become a pivot point in contemporary relationships between Indigenous nations and Canada.
Released in 1969, this short documentary was one of the most influential and widely distributed productions made by the Indian Film Crew (IFC), the first all-Indigenous unit at the NFB. It documents a 1969 protest by the Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk) of Akwesasne, a territory that straddles the Canada–U.S. border. When Canadian authorities prohibited the duty-free cross-border passage of personal purchases—a right established by the Jay Treaty of 1794—Kanien’kéhaka protesters blocked the international bridge between Ontario and New York State. Director Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell later became Grand Chief of Akwesasne. The film was formally credited to him in 2017. You Are on Indian Land screened extensively across the continent, helping to mobilize a new wave of Indigenous activism. It notably was shown at the 1970 occupation of Alcatraz.
This short documentary by Alanis Obomsawin tells the story of Kahentiiosta, a young Kahnawake Mohawk woman arrested after the Oka Crisis' 78-day armed standoff in 1990. She was detained 4 days longer than the other women. Her crime? The prosecutor representing the Quebec government did not accept her Indigenous name.
This feature-length documentary chronicles the Sundance ceremony brought to Eastern Canada by William Nevin of the Elsipogtog First Nation of the Mi'kmaq. Nevin learned from Elder Keith Chiefmoon of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Alberta. Under the July sky, participants in the Sundance ceremony go four days without food or water. Then they will pierce the flesh of their chests in an offering to the Creator. This event marks a transmission of culture and a link to the warrior traditions of the past.
Released in 1968 and often referred to as Canada’s first music video, The Ballad of Crowfoot was directed by Willie Dunn, a Mi’kmaq/Scottish folk singer and activist who was part of the historic Indian Film Crew, the first all-Indigenous production unit at the NFB. The film is a powerful look at colonial betrayals, told through a striking montage of archival images and a ballad composed by Dunn himself about the legendary 19th-century Siksika (Blackfoot) chief who negotiated Treaty 7 on behalf of the Blackfoot Confederacy. The IFC’s inaugural release, Crowfoot was the first Indigenous-directed film to be made at the NFB.
Dancing Around the Table: Part Two charts the battle to enshrine Indigenous rights in the Canadian Constitution, capturing a key moment in Canada’s history from the perspective of Indigenous negotiators. The 1985 conference, chaired by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, was the fourth and final meeting to determine an amendment to Indigenous rights as defined in the Constitution. The provincial premiers again refuse to reach an agreement with the First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders, even though the majority of Canadians supported the inclusion of Indigenous rights to self-government.Director Bulbulian captures the pride and determination of Indigenous leaders and community members who refuse to back down on this historic opportunity to enshrine their rights, and the arrogance of the First Ministers who are fighting to keep power within the federal and provincial governments. The film takes us to Indigenous communities, where ceremony and traditional practices affirm the connection to the earth and its animals, and are the source of the strength and resilience shown by the Indigenous people around the table.
The people of the Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community in northern Ontario, were thrust into the national spotlight in 2012 when the impoverished living conditions on their reserve became an issue of national debate. With The People of the Kattawapiskak River, Abenaki director Alanis Obomsawin quietly attends as community members tell their own story, shedding light on a history of dispossession and official indifference. “Obomsawin’s main objective is to make us see the people of Attawapiskat differently,” said Robert Everett-Green in The Globe & Mail. “The emphasis, ultimately, is not so much on looking as on listening—the first stage in changing the conversation, or in making one possible.” Winner of the 2013 Donald Brittain Award for Best Social/Political Documentary, the film is part of a cycle of films that Obomsawin has made on children’s welfare and rights.
Also available on the Alanis Obomsawin: A Legacy DVD box set
Ages 10 to 17
Geography - Territory: Indigenous
Indigenous Studies - History/Politics
Indigenous Studies - Issues and Contemporary Challenges
Social Studies - Law
In class discussion, consider why the Quebec government decided to restrict salmon fishing on the Restigouche River by the Mi’kmaq. Was this decision lawful? Was this decision justified? Have students comment on the treatment of the reserve members by the QPP. Discuss the aftermath of the raids, in terms of vindication.