In 2007, the Assembly of First Nations and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada filed a human rights complaint against the government of Canada. The complaint claims that the Canadian government has been discriminating against First Nations children and families by underfunding welfare on reserves. When parents can’t afford to take care of these children, they are taken away from their families and placed into foster care. The case is headed by a woman named Cindy Blackstock, who argues that the system is almost a continuation of residential schools.
Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice chronicles the case.
Obomsawin has been telling stories of First Nations peoples in Canada for nearly her entire career. Her connection to the people and communities she covers is apparent in how comfortable her subjects are on screen. It’s not easy to get people to talk so genuinely when they’re being filmed, especially when the subject matter is so sensitive.
Those are the kinds of moments I wished the film focused on moreçthe human ones. Unfortunately, most of the film features long periods of uncut court footage, where small—and frankly boring—details are hashed out in legal jargon. It’s hard to connect with a courtroom, but it was hard to not get emotional watching an old man still shake with fear as he recounts his experience at a residential school.
It might be the fault of Obomsawin, who’s so absorbed into the story that she forgets her audience needs context. Some of the court proceedings also seemed to be filmed rather erratically and did nothing to elevate the profoundly important story the documentary was telling.
However, when Obomsawin did bring in the human perspective, she did it right. Her subjects, who tell their difficult stories so genuinely, are the reason why the audience stays emotionally connected. Despite the documentary’s many flaws, Obomsawin must be given credit for capturing that.
In the question period following the screening, Blackstock, the face of the complaint, joined Obomsawin. When asked about what happened after the case, Blackstock informed the audience that despite winning, they saw no tangible action from the Canadian government. Many of the issues explored in the film still remain mostly unresolved.
But Blackstock says that even though the film ends, her fight still isn’t over.
“I will never settle for the lowest common denominator for my people,” she said, prompting well-deserved applause.
We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice was exclusively shown at TIFF 2016, but will be released for public viewing on the National Film Board of Canada’s website.