In 2007, the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada (FNCFCS) and the Assembly of First Nations began a historic legal battle against the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada, arguing that the welfare services available to Indigenous children on reserves were vastly – indeed, dangerously – inferior to those offered to other Canadian children.
After nine grueling years, during which the federal government attempted to delay and obstruct the complainants, the latter won their case. In her film “We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice,” Alanis Obomsawin documents the case in detail, bearing witness to the tireless work of the children’s rights advocates involved.
A Montreal screening
On Thursday January 18, the documentary was screened at Cinema du Parc for the McGill community. Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the FNCFCS and a professor in McGill’s School of Social Work, was in attendance, along with Obomsawin.
Blackstock is a central figure in “We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice.” In her role at FNCFCS, she was heavily involved in bringing the initial discrimination complaint, and gave extensive testimony throughout the case.
Blackstock opened Thursday’s screening with an indictment of the apathy and systemic racism that has devastated the lives of many Indigenous children on Canadian reserves. In particular, she mentioned the case of two twelve-year-old girls from the Wapekeka First Nation in Ontario, who committed suicide earlier this month.
“Throughout history, Canada has always known about the inequalities, known about the harms, and relied on the public to stop watching and not demand change,” said Blackstock. “My one request of you is that you don’t look away.”
Obomsawin also spoke, thanking the attendees for their presence.
“You’re about to see a very important story,” she said, “one that is, of course, very dear to me and to thousands of people.”
Obomsawin told the audience that in the course of her career as a documentary filmmaker on Indigenous issues, she had been present in many courtrooms, watching many Indigenous people receiving discriminatory treatment at the hands of the Canadian justice system. After a lifetime spent witnessing and being subjected to racial and colonial oppression, this case had brought her hope.
“The feeling in the courtrooms was so horrifying,” she said, “mainly because of the disrespect. And when I say disrespect, I mean everybody, including the judges and the lawyers. […] The feeling was, ‘we know all about you, you’re guilty, shut up, go to jail.’ And what I want to say, when I sat in the courtroom this time, at the tribunal of human rights, I watched the 72 witnesses that came to speak, and I saw our people be respected.”
The documentary itself follows the nine-year legal battle in great detail, showing extensive courtroom footage, supplemented by interviews with those participating in the case. The audience at Cinema du Parc seemed engrossed, with many gasping audibly during particularly harrowing portions of the film.
After the screening, a panel discussion was held. The panel featured four McGill students and was moderated by Allan Downey, a McGill professor specializing in Indigenous history.
One of the panelists, Amal Elsana Alh’jooj, a PhD candidate in McGill’s School of Social Work, noted the parallels between the systemic discrimination documented in Obomsawin’s film and the discrimination faced by Palestinians like herself, living in territory controlled by Israel.
“Canada has a reputation as a place where human rights are protected,” said Alh’jooj, “and we look at Canada as really an idol for these kinds of things.”
“So all of a sudden to come here,” she continued, “and discover that in the backyard of Canada, there is this catastrophe of many, many years, it’s kind of really shocking. And I think the role of social workers, community organizing, and all of us here is how to bring this case to the forefront – in the front yard of Canada, and to […] be brave enough to put these things on the table.”
“As someone who came from an Indigenous community in the south part of Israel, living many years in situations of discrimination, house demolition, evacuating in the name of the law, and advocating for my own people’s human rights, what this [film] is telling us is that all systems are very similar.”
Israeli officials, said Alh’jooj, routinely make the same arguments that the Canadian government used to attack and delegitimize Blackstock and her fellow activists. For this reason, the documentary resonated deeply with her.
Another panelist, Carlee Loft, a Kanien’keha:ka student majoring in psychology at McGill, spoke “not as someone who has gone through child welfare myself, but who has cared very deeply about someone who has, and who has seen them struggle, trying to connect back to their community, trying to find ties to their family.”
“What’s even harder is watching them struggle against this label that’s given to them, of a ‘problem child’ […] and this troubled Indigenous youth,” continued Loft. “This isn’t the same generation that went through residential schools, but they’re going through something very similar.”
Christian Quequish, a Saulteaux student currently serving as the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Indigenous Affairs Commissioner, spoke about the challenges of effective allyship and the pitfalls of reconciliation.
“I guess what really struck me [about the film] was non-Indigenous children […] supporting Indigenous children,” he began. “It’s incredibly symbolic – it’s not something that I grew up with, but it’s good to see that that’s a trend that’s happening. […] I think for us older folks there needs to be a recognition that the relationships between Indigenous peoples has been historically imbalanced, and that discriminatory policies sustain this imbalance.”
“The way allies approach Indigenous peoples’ issues sometimes reinforces that balance to the point where it’s more about feeling good about themselves than actual empowerment of Indigenous people,” he continued. “So in approaching better relations between the two groups, it seems as if it’s time to start privileging Indigenous voices. […] Empowerment should come first, and symbolic acts should follow.”
A previous version of this article omitted to include Christian Quequish’s preferred Indigenous identifier (Saulteaux). The Daily regrets the error.