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.”
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.”
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.
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.
This feature-length documentary traces the journey of the Haisla people to reclaim the G'psgolox totem pole that went missing from their British Columbia village in 1929. The fate of the 19th century traditional mortuary pole remained unknown for over 60 years until it was discovered in a Stockholm museum where it is considered state property by the Swedish government.Director Gil Cardinal combines interviews, striking imagery and rare footage of master carvers to raise questions about ownership and the meaning of Indigenous objects held in museums.
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.
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.
The final instalment of this 3-part documentary series about Pierre Elliott Trudeau and René Lévesque spans the decade between 1976 and 1986. The film reveals the turbulent, behind-the-scenes drama during the Quebec referendum and the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution. In doing so, it also traces both Trudeau's and Lévesque's fall from power.
Part 2 of this 3-part documentary series about Pierre Elliott Trudeau and René Lévesque covers the years between 1967 and 1977, a colourful decade that saw Trudeau win three federal elections, the 1970 October Crisis and the sweeping rise to power of the Parti Québécois.
Dancing Around the Table: Part One provides a fascinating look at the crucial role Indigenous people played in shaping the Canadian Constitution. The 1984 Federal Provincial Conference of First Ministers on Aboriginal Constitutional Matters was a tumultuous and antagonistic process that pitted Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the First Ministers—who refused to include Indigenous inherent rights to self-government in the Constitution—against First Nations, Inuit and Métis leaders, who would not back down from this historic opportunity to enshrine Indigenous rights.In a now infamous exchange, Kwakwaka’wakw lawyer and lead negotiator Bill Wilson states that he has two children who want to become lawyers and prime minister. When he says that they are Indigenous women, the male audience bursts into laughter, and Trudeau replies, “Tell them I’ll stick around until they’re ready.” Over 30 years later, Bill Wilson’s daughter, Jody Wilson-Raybould, became Canada’s first Indigenous minister of justice and attorney general in the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The conference was Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s last constitutional meeting before he resigned and the process was handed over to his successor, Brian Mulroney.
In Part 1 of this 3-part documentary series, director Donald Brittain chronicles the early years of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and René Lévesque. From their university days in the 1950s to 1967 when Lévesque left the Liberal Party and Trudeau became the federal Minister of Justice, Brittain attempts to get at the heart of what makes these men so fascinating.
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.
Ages 14 to 17
Civics/Citizenship - Human Rights
Geography - Territory: Indigenous
History and Citizenship Education - Quebec Society Since 1980
Indigenous Studies - History/Politics
Indigenous Studies - Identity/Society
Begin with a discussion of why Indigenous people feel so strongly about the need to protect their land. Discuss whether the government over-reacted by calling in the army. Could this dispute have been settled by any other means? Who would you consider “the bad guys” in this confrontation? Has this film challenged your views concerning Native issues in Canada? Were all parties involved represented fairly in this film?