KANEHSATAKE: 270 YEARS OF RESISTANCE
d: Alanis Obomsawin
p: Alanis Obomsawin and Wolf Koenig
from The National Film Board
119 minutes CAN1993


link to official site


"The only honest politician is one who is bought and remains bought."
- Simon Cameron, 19th century American Politician


Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, begins with the mayor of Oka, a small town in southern Quebec, and his initiative to build a private golf course on sacred Mohawk land. It ends with Mohawks being dragged to prison for defending their land, and their livelihood. For 78+ days, Obomsawin's cameras rolled. As much as I love her title, I thought of some alternate titles below to help describe the movie.


The Back Nine
Spring of 1990 must have been a particular headache for Brian Mulroney and his Conservative cabinet. He wasn’t having much success as Canada’s 18th Prime Minister up to this point and the month of March awoke two lions that would eventually tear his party to pieces - Quebec Sovereignty and Native rights. On March 9 Newfoundland & Labrador premier Clyde Wells rejected the Meech Lake Accord - a set of constitutional reforms PM Mulroney promised in 1984. Two days later, in a separate incident, a group of Mohawk Indians blocked a dirt road to protest Oka Mayor Jean Ouellette’s approval to build a luxury housing development and expand a private 9-hole golf course, both to be located on Mohawk land.

The summer of 1990 in Quebec will go down as a catalyst for the events influencing Canadian politics for the next decade and beyond. The Sponsorship Scandal, 1995 Quebec referendum, the collapse of the Conservative Party, the formation of the Alliance party, and the creation of Canada’s third territory - Nunavut were all because of Oka and Meech Lake. On June 22 Elijah Harper, a New Democratic MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) from northern Manitoba opposed the Meech Accor on its premise that Canada had two founding "races", English and French. There was no mention of its native people. This ignorance stung the Mulroney cabinet, killing the party for a decade.

By July 1990, mayor Ouellette’s patience had run out. On the morning of July 11th the SQ (Quebec’s provincial police) approached the Mohawk barricade blocking development. The SQ told the women to get their spokesman. One replied she was the spokesman and asked the officer not to point guns at the children. In disbelief, the officer fired a few gas canisters over the barricade. After this was chaos and confusion. More gas and concussion grenades were launched, a firefight broke out and in the end, 31-year-old Corporal Marcel Lemay was shot and killed in the pines west of the Mohawk barricade. The SQ hastily retreated, leaving their cruisers to be piled into an even larger and deathly symbolic barricade now blocking a major highway running through Mohawk land. The battle had begun.


Throughout this long hot summer, one filmmaker was tenacious enough to document this historic event. Alanis Obomsawin was born 31 August 1932 on Abenaki territory in Lebanon, New Hampshire, U.S.A. At six months of age, as a member of the Abenaki nation, her family moved to the Odanak reserve on Montreal’s south shore. At nine, she moved to Trois-Rivières, about 120 km northeast of Montreal. Obomsawin was a singer and storyteller until 1965 when a Montreal film producer hired her to translate and consultant on native issues. Since then, Obomsawin has directed over 15 films, most of which she also wrote and produced. Kanehsatake (pronounced Ga-ne-sa-ta-ghe) is the first of four films Obomsawin made over the next decade documenting the Oka Crisis. The other films are My Name is Kahentiiosta (1993), Spudwrench: Kahnawake Man (1997) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000).

The characters presented to us in Kanehsatake are both predictable and personable, with a clear line drawn between. The officers of the SQ and soldiers of the Canadian military are predictably robotic in their "just doing my job" mentality. It’s scary to think of these men as public servants when the only emotion in their eyes is fear or anger. The term "warriors" is generously used to describe the native protesters, but it is less a reflection of their actions and more a reflection of their spirit. These were family people, with many keeping their families together behind the barricade. Although the majority of Kanehsatake is filmed in the moment, a few talking heads recall the emotion and intensity felt behind the barricades and eloquently describe the feeling of standing up to centuries of unjust behavior.


After the barricade was moved from the golf course to the highway the Mohawks felt the heat from many sides. Obomsawin and editor Yurij Luhovy set an effective, panic-stricken pace cutting from negotiation to confrontation as the camera swings back and fourth across the barricade. This confusion plateaus as the camera stares in disbelief at 1000’s of residents from Châteauguay who are furious about the baracade. They gather in the streets and burn effigies of Mohawk warriors from street lamps. But Obomsawin is quick to show both sides of the Québécois. Minutes later, interviews from the citizens of Oka show how most of the town is against the development of the golf course. One man bluntly asks the camera "who is the more mature voice in the dispute?" - it would be great to hear from the Mayor on this one but he’d already gone into hiding.


Broken Promises
A catchy title, I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t scoped it up. The trail of broken promises in Oka is extensive, even for a conflict lasting three months. Obomsawin lines up politician after policeman after soldier and knocks them down with their own words. First the director gives us a little background to the conflict - from 1716 when the priests of Saint Sulpice had Mohawk land granted to themselves, to the first imprisonment of a Mohawk Chief 150 years later. Obomsawin’s presentation of the irony between past and present events would be laughable if this were fiction, but the consequences are certainly no laughing matter. Using simple editing techniques of action vs. reaction she patiently builds one statement on top of another to make her point. The Mohawk actions are based on honour and the actions of those in power are based on greed and deceit.

The camera doesn’t lie and these untruths caught on film are what puts Kanehsatake above other factual, episodic-type documentaries; this reminds me of other docs which captured their source material in the field as opposed to in the archives, like Paradise Lost, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (1996), Waco: Rules of Engagement, William Gazecki (1997) and Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock (2004). As one Native protester astutely observed, the white man has kept only one promise throughout the history of the two nations, to take all the land of the Aboriginal people.


Democracy: Canadian Style
Obomsawin chooses not too make this overly political so I can see why this title eluded her. But she does include two brief but telling appearances by the men with the most power to either stop the crisis or push it forward. Quebec’s Liberal premier Robert Bourassa was no stranger to native land claims. In 1971 he proposed the building of massive hydroelectric dams in James Bay without approval of the Cree Nation. Twenty years later, he responds to the Oka question with - "it’s hard to defend democracy against people who don’t believe in democracy." Canada’s prime minister Brian Mulroney, fresh from his defeat over Meech is equally vague with his predictably textbook position - "Canada will not be intimidated by a group of warriors whose actions are illegal." I wonder if Mulroney ever realized his insensitivity as he made this statement while wearing a golf shirt? These words also compliment the view seven local mayors took when they met in support of Ouellette and asked the press, "why should we negotiate for something that’s already ours?" Obomsawin underlines this attitude of "might makes right" beatifully with images of tanks, blockades and police intimidation from the front lines. From every level of government - local, provincial and federal, we see a discreet and cowardly heavy handedness that Canada’s Charter of Rights supposedly defends against.


How to Create a Police State
If you can put aside the history and honour of the Mohawk people for one minute, then this would be a great instructional film on military tactics and intimidation. I’m surprised the cameras were permitted to roll as long as they did. These unforgettable images show the battle for freedom and dignity was not solely fought at the roadblock. The residents of Oka were denied access to their homes, food and clothing supplies were stopped at army checkpoints, citizens of the town were strip searched and intimidated with live ammunition and journalists were detained while their film and videotape was confiscated.

Once the civilians were brought in line the next step was the perpetrators. I guess if the NFB knows one thing, it’s how to make educational films and this one could have been screened in Officer training schools across the country. We see flares starting brush fires, unexploded missiles in the Mohawk camp, high-pressure hoses turned on the Mohawks and long houses with women and children stormed and raided. All this would be hard to swallow if the Mohawks didn’t have a couple tricks of their own, which irritate the army and eventually make things worse. Once again, Obomsawin’s approach is simple - she pieces her story together following the time line of events. But her technique is so thorough and fluid you become both absorbed and disgusted by what you see on screen.


Ignorance: 270 Years and still counting
Putting anything on film is a challenge. To put together a feature-length documentary is commendable. To make it interesting is another story all together. Today, video cameras can hold hours worth of tape and directors just let those babies roll - and why not? Tape is cheap, batteries can recharge and as long as you have a couple hundred gigs of hard drive space and three months of free time you can whittle 200 hours into 2 hours of entertaining drivel. But in 1990, it was all film, which makes the footage captured by Obomsawin and her team of photographers that much more impressive. Her cameras seem to be everywhere, all the time, acting in the most stealth-like and unobtrusive manner - the true art of photography. For example, on August 28 a mob of hundreds assaulted a convoy of women, children and elders as they left their homes on the Kahnawake reserve for fear of a military assault. What is unbelievable is to see officers of the SQ, sworn to protect and serve, casually stand beside the attackers as they launch fist size rocks at the motorcade. One man was killed and several injured from this behaviour.

Every time a motorist in Quebec pulls onto the road they are reminded of the bad blood and discrimination between the English and French: the provincial license plate reads "Je me souveins", translation, I remember. Maybe they should also put the plates on the front of their cars because for some, this history lesson is hard learned.


In the end the Oka Crisis wound up costing huge. Claude Ryan, Public Security Minister for Quebec, told the legislature the conflict cost the provincial taxpayers over $112 million. This does not include the additional $20 million in compensation for the residents of Oka and the estimated $50,000/day Quebec police charged the province for continued patrols of the reserves. On the federal level, the armed forces spent approximately $83 million in securing the area and seeing the conflict to its end. These figures, reaching well over $200 million, total more than the value of the land in question.

With Kanehsatake, Obomsawin has created a pure documentary by capturing her source material in the field and in camera. Around the world this film received close to twenty documentary and social justice awards. But it also received heavy criticism for being biased and one sided. Having been in Montreal during the standoff I remember how the media covered the Oka crisis and it didn’t look like this. I remember being told the "warriors" were renegades, savages and a social disturbance, so it is great to see another perspective. Obomsawin was in fact very generous in her judgement of the authorities and for the most part let both sides speak for, and at times embarrass, themselves.

Of all the awards it garnered, Kanehsatake failed to win its own native prize. That year, a movie about bottle pickers was chosen as Canada’s top doc. Obamsamin's hot topic extinguished her chances of first place, but Kanehsatake will live on as one of cinema's true classics.



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