The National Film Board of Canada & Alanis Obomsawin

By: Howard Akler

Howard Akler

Howard Akler

Historical Contributor

Howard Akler a writer and the author of two novels, The City Man and Splitsville, and Men of Action, a memoir.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the rights and freedoms of all human beings, including the opportunity to create and share in the artistic and cultural life of their community. Canada’s commitment to this principle can be seen through the lens of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). The NFB is one of the biggest public film production and distribution agencies in the world, with more than 13,000 titles in its collection. Originally founded in 1939 as the National Film Commission, the agency’s early days were focused on war-related films before turning the camera on our identity at home. John Grierson, the first commissioner, wanted the agency to be “the eyes of Canada,” and filmmakers ever since have aimed to show Canadians the social and political breadth of their own country.

Alanis Obomsawin, 1971. Image courtesy of Library & Archives Canada.

No one personifies the spirit of the NFB more than Alanis Obomsawin. The 91-year-old has been called the most important filmmaker in Canadian history. She has made 56 films over 50 years, each one offering a clear, sometimes lyrical, look at the lives of Indigenous people. Prior to her first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, in 1971, most Indigenous stories were viewed and told through the lens of white, Christian males. Obomsawin set out to change that. Documentary film is her ideal medium, she said in a 2016 interview, because it “is the only place that people have a voice – a real voice, the real people.”[i]

There are plenty of real voices throughout Christmas at Moose Factory. Told through the stories and drawings of children in the Cree community of Moose Factory, in Northern Ontario, the 13-minute film is original and moving. The children’s art speaks volumes, articulating their perspective on both family time and being taught in federally run residential schools. The film, according to writer Zoe Heaps Tennant, is “quietly radical, centring Indigenous children at a time when colonial forces routinely stripped them of their voices.”[ii]

Obomsawin has often emphasized the importance of voice in her films. This grew out of her own experience. Born in 1932, her early years were spent in Odanak, an Abenaki reserve an hour’s drive from Montreal. There was no electricity, no running water, but a lifetime of stories. Evenings were spent listening to adults tell, in Obomsawin’s native Abenaki language, the tales of her people and her heritage. She discovered that “voice is like a song. It changes if they talk about something sad or happy.”[iii] This revelation gained greater resonance when, at nine, she moved to Trois-Rivières, where she found herself to be the only Indigenous child in her class. She was taunted and beaten by her classmates and, perhaps most painfully, forced to study from school books that depicted her people as ugly savages beholden to a backwards culture. She found no one willing to listen to her, to hear her side of the story. As a result of her lived experiences, Obomsawin’s entire career has been devoted to helping Indigenous people emerge from such suffocating silences.

Nowhere is this more telling than in her 1993 film, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance. The documentary covers the Kanehsatà:ke Resistance, commonly known to English speakers as the Oka Crisis. In July 1990, the people of Kanehsatà:ke, a Mohawk community not far from Montreal, banded together to stop the neighbouring town of Oka’s plans to build luxury condos and expand a golf course on their sacred land, which included a burial site known as The Pines. The protesters sawed down trees to create a barricade and prevent access to the site. The Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, tried to remove them with tear gas and bullets. The protesters fired back. During the skirmish, an officer was killed and the RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces were called in. The tense standoff lasted 78 days, and Obomsawin was there behind the barricades for all of it.

The result, after more than 70 interviews and 250 hours of footage, is a compelling and compassionate masterpiece. Viewers learn that this was not one isolated incident but one of many in nearly three centuries of colonial dispossession. Interviewees tell of fighting for their land and heritage, their individual points of view played off the big picture of the standoff. Internationally acclaimed, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance has been called the turning point in terms of the white majority’s deeper understanding and acceptance of Indigenous land claims.

“I think her whole career is an act of decolonization,” said Jesse Wente, founding director of the Indigenous Screen Office and current chair of the Canada Council for the Arts. “An act of decolonization of our screens, of our institutions… but most importantly, a decolonization of our thoughts, and how we think and see the world.”[iv]

Alanis Obomsawin rests on a rock beside the Lake of Two Mountains, Kanehsatà:ke, 1990. Image credit: John Kenney. Image courtesy of E-Flux.

[I] Maurie Alioff, “The Long Walk of Alanis Obomsawin,” in Point of View Magazine (May 3, 2016). 

[ii] Zoe Heaps Tennant, “At Ninety-One, Alanis Obomsawin Is Not Ready to Put Down Her Camera,” in The Walrus (September 5, 2023). 

[iii] Tennant, 2023.

[iv] CBC Radio, “50 Years of Indigenous Cinema: The Impact of Alanis Obomsawin,” on Unreserved, with host Rosanna Deerchild (May 31, 2019).