Marking the tipping point

A review of Obomsawin's Trick or Treaty?
February 1, 2015

Chief-elect Robert Fiddler at the June 9, 1910 Treaty 5 signing in Deer LakeFor a film about a land grab of continental proportions committed over a century ago, Trick or Treaty? is an upbeat joyous celebration of the survival of the Native voice.

The latest documentary by legendary octogenarian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is equally about the Idle No More movement as about Treaty 9, which stripped First Nations of rights to the land they depended on for their traditional culture and livelihood. The former is portrayed as a tipping point in the groundswell response to the 2012 federal omnibus budget bill (C-45), but with a strong reference to the now century-old negotiation and signing with the Crown.

The key words Treaty 9 are: "the said Indians do here by cede, release, surrender and yield up to the government of the Dominion of Canada, for His Majesty the King and his successors for ever, all their rights titles and privileges whatsoever" to the lands then listed. At the time, the government emphasized that signatory nations "shall have the right to pursue their usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing throughout the tract surrendered," but without mentioning the legal modification that follows: "subject to such regulations as may from time to time be made by the government of the country, acting under the authority of His Majesty...for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes."

And there lies the trick. The film juxtaposes the official text with oral reports from, among others, Dr. Stan Louttit, the grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, as he heard them from his forefathers, including his grandfather, Treaty 9 signatory Andrew Wesley. We are talking of two completely different registers of experience, with the written overriding the spoken—until now, that is. Louttit makes an undeniable case for how various Native leaders—Missabay, a blind hunter, provides a key example—expressed fears of being deprived of their land and water but were assuaged by promises they could live as they always did. Thus assured, First Nations representatives signed, and the English representatives of King George departed with the document.

"They did not leave the document with us. They did not translate the document. They said words to get our signature," explains Louttit, whose father found out only 25 years later what the document said when an Anglican minister invited him to read it.

The villain in Obomsawin's film is Duncan Campbell Scott, a Treaty 9 commissioner and subsequently head of the Department of Indian Affairs, who proposed legislation in 1920 to implement the Indian residential school system with the famous words, "I want to get rid of the Indian problem." Scott knew the signatories of Treaty 9 could not have understood its legalities, writing later that "the simpler facts had to be stated, and the parental idea developed that the King is the great father of the Indians, watching over their interests and ever compassionate."

This was on display at various Treaty 9 signing ceremonies, where the British flag was wrapped around Native leaders in a protective gesture. A feast was then typically celebrated, and $8 given to those present, as the government promoted the treaty as an agreement for peaceful co-existence, sharing and mutual respect.

While documenting this historical deceit, the film also celebrates the timely explosion of the Idle No More movement. Obomsawin begins with Attawapiskat Chief Teresa Spence's hunger strike in protest of the neglect shown to her northern Ontario community's housing and infrastructure crisis. It concludes with the exuberant end to a six-week trek by 200 Native youth from Whapmagoostui (in northern Quebec) to Ottawa, led by a 17-year-old Cree, David Kawapit. The immediacy of these current events and emotional communal gatherings liven otherwise wordy discussions about a piece of colonial legalese that rendered the signatories' lives illegal. Sheer survival is a political act.

One of the most powerful moments of the film occurs when Métis leader Tony Belcourt acknowledges the déjà vu feeling he experienced when the Harper government stonewalled Chief Spence's invitation, in December 2012, for a special meeting with Native leaders. "It was the same in '71," he says, against the backdrop of his younger self, referring to his trip to Ottawa as the first president of the Native Councils of Canada. "We had the same arguments: our lands were being taken away from us, our environment was being destroyed, our way of life was being threatened, the health and safety of our peoples were all at risk... In 1971 they could get away with it, and now, in 2012, they can't."

Obomsawin's cinematic style is consistently oral and musical. As she described at a screening of her film during October's imagineNative film festival in Toronto, her creative process begins not with the video camera but the audio recorder. The voice is more important to her than the picture. Still, the film includes powerful images of our expansive natural environment, its voiceless animals and rich vegetation. It is a cinematic expression of the clash of the two registers (oral and textual) of experience. It confronts Canadians with the fork in the road: the protection of the land and the people, or the juggernaut of endless development?

Chandra Siddan is a Toronto-based writer and filmmaker. Trick or Treaty? was initially released in September and is available on iTunes.