The Creston Valley Public Library presents Alanis Obomsawin’s National Film Board documentary, The People of the Kattawapiskak River on Nov. 12.
Prior to undertaking her recent hunger strike, Chief Theresa Spence had declared a state of emergency in the Attawapiskat First Nation community in northern Ontario, due to the shocking housing conditions in the community, the Canadian government’s gross mismanagement of the situation, and the presence of a lucrative diamond mine operating on the land.
In The People of the Kattawapiskak River, iconic filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin investigates the stories behind the media storm, and introduces us to the mothers, fathers, and children of Attawapiskat, who live in conditions even worse than had been imagined. Unsparingly depicting the shockingly grim realities of life in Attawapiskat — toddlers crawling around in houses that are falling apart, parents who cannot afford the exorbitant cost of the few groceries that are available to them, the residents’ struggles to find clean, drinkable water — Obomsawin also paints a portrait of a resilient community fighting to hold on to their life and their future.
A crucial film in the midst of a media-saturated public debate that often relegates those most affected to the sidelines, The People of the Kattawapiskak River is at once a powerful chapter in the long history of struggle by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, a radical exposé of a vital contemporary issue, and an impassioned call to action.
Obomsawin was present in the community in 2011, working on another film for the National Film Board of Canada, when the housing issue came to national attention. The film follows the crisis up to the Federal Court of Canada’s August 2012 decision that ruled the appointment of a third-party manager to fix the housing crisis was unjustified. In addition to filming conditions in the community and interviewing residents, Obomsawin recounts the history of the village, which dates back to 1850 when Catholic missionaries built a chapel on the land.
Obomsawin has stated that she uses the name Kattawapiskak in place of Attiwapiskat in the film and its title because she believes it to be the community’s correct name.
“People who watch these documentaries start thinking differently,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh my God, all my life I felt these Indians, they are always complaining.’ People are shocked when they start hearing these things. They live next door to a reservation and they don’t know the reality of that community.”
Over nearly 40 years, Obomsawin has made more than 30 documentaries, dealing primarily with issues affecting Aboriginal people in Canada. But Obomsawin first dealt with Aboriginal issues in the early 1960s as a folksinger, touring Canada and performing for humanitarian causes in universities, museums, prisons and art centres, as well as at folk art festivals. She got her start at the National Film Board in 1967, when producers saw Obomsawin on TV. They invited the singer-storyteller to the film board to work as an advisor on a film about Aboriginal people. Obomsawin went on to direct films of her own, while continuing to perform and fight for justice for her people.
An officer of the Order of Canada, Obomsawin has been named to the Playback Canadian Film and Television Hall of Fame, has received a Governor General’s Award in visual and media arts, and received the Hot Docs film festival’s Outstanding Achievement Award. She was honoured with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement.
The People of the Kattawapiskak River will be preceded by the short film, Trapper, a beautiful short capturing the quiet dignity of a day in the life of a northern trapper.
See Trapper and The People of the Kattawapiskak River at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at the Creston Valley Public Library. Admission is free. Running time is 75 minutes. For more information, call the library at 250-428-4141.
—CRESTON VALLEY PUBLIC LIBRARY