A member of the Abenaki Nation and one of Canada’s most distinguished filmmakers, Alanis Obomsawin is a director and producer at the National Film Board of Canada, where she has worked since 1967.
In September 2021, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is presenting the world premiere of Ms. Obomsawin’s new film, Honour to Senator Murray Sinclair, which shares the powerful speech Senator Sinclair gave when he accepted the WFM-Canada World Peace Award, interspersed with the heartbreaking testimonies of former students imprisoned at residential schools.
It’s her 53rd film in a legendary career spanning 54 years, devoted to chronicling the lives and concerns of First Nations people and exploring issues of importance to all.
TIFF is also presenting Obomsawin with the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media, recognizing leadership in creating a union between social impact and cinema, along with a career retrospective entitled Celebrating Alanis.
FILM CYCLE ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS CHILDREN AND PEOPLES
Obomsawin’s 2019 production Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger completed, on an optimistic note, a seven-film cycle devoted to the rights of Indigenous children and Peoples, which began in 2010 when she conducted her first interviews for The People of the Kattawapiskak River.
Named Best Canadian Documentary at the Vancouver International Film Festival, the film tells the story of Jordan River Anderson, and how as a result of his short life almost a quarter of a million First Nations children today have health care equal to that enjoyed by the rest of Canadians.
Walking Is Medicine (2018) followed the story of the Nishiyuu walkers: six young Cree men who recreated the 1,600-kilometre trek from Whapmagoostui in Quebec to Ottawa—a journey whose roots date back millennia.
In 2017, Our People Will Be Healed brought audiences inside the Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre, an innovative school in the Cree community of Norway House.
In 2016, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice documented a court challenge by the Assembly of First Nations and Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, which argued welfare services provided to First Nations children on reserves and in Yukon were underfunded.
Her 2014 documentary Trick or Treaty? follows the journey of Indigenous people in their quest for justice as they seek to establish a dialogue with the Canadian government—and was the first film by an Indigenous filmmaker selected to TIFF’s Masters program.
In 2013, she completed Hi-Ho Mistahey!, taking viewers into the heart of Shannen’s Dream, a national campaign to provide fair access to education for First Nations youth. The previous year, Obomsawin completed The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012), which went behind the headlines to explore the Attawapiskat housing crisis.
For Obomsawin, this film cycle represents a departure for First Nations: “Young people are leading the way. Their leadership and strength is beautiful and inspiring. We are on the road to a place we’ve never been before, to a new age for Indigenous peoples, and it is our youth who are leading us. This is what I am trying to show in these films.”
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Ms. Obomsawin’s body of work includes such acclaimed films as Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), a feature-length documentary on the 1990 Mohawk uprising in Kanehsatake and Oka, which received 18 international awards, including the Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association and the Award for Best Canadian Feature Film from the Toronto Festival of Festivals (now known as TIFF).
This documentary inspired a four-film cycle about the Oka crisis, with My Name Is Kahentiiosta (1995), Spudwrench – Kahnawake Man (1997) and Rocks at Whiskey Trench (2000).
PIVOTAL events, LANDMARK works
Six years before the Oka Crisis, Obomsawin completed her groundbreaking Incident at Restigouche (1984), a behind-the-scenes look at Quebec police raids on a Mi’kmaq reserve that features a remarkable on-camera exchange between Obomsawin and Minister of Fisheries Lucien Lessard, who’d ordered the raid.
Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986) is a disturbing examination of an adolescent suicide. She followed that with No Address (1988), a look at Indigenous homeless people in Montreal—with both films named Best Documentary at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.
Her 2003 documentary, Our Nationhood, chronicles the determination and tenacity of the Listuguj Mi’kmaq people to use and manage the natural resources of their traditional lands. Obomsawin also takes viewers inside the struggle waged by the Mi’kmaq of Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) in her 2002 documentary, Is the Crown at War with us?, a powerful and painstakingly researched look at the conflict over fishing rights.
stories from odAnak
The people of her home community of Odanak and her own experiences growing up on this Abenaki First Nations reserve have also been the inspiration for a number of films.
In her 2007 documentary, Gene Boy Came Home, Obomsawin turns her camera on the ugliness of war through the eyes of one survivor, Vietnam War veteran and Odanak resident Eugene “Gene Boy” Benedict.
Her people and their stories are the subject of her 2006 feature documentary, Waban-Aki: People from Where the Sun Rises, named Best Documentary at the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival.
Obomsawin drew on her own experiences as a child in Odanak for such works as When All the Leaves Are Gone (2010), which blends autobiography with fiction as it explores the power of dreams and the strength of the human spirit, as well as her 2005 drama Sigwan, about a young girl who is aided by the animals of the forest.
Joining the NFB
Obomsawin began her career as a singer, writer and storyteller, with her professional debut as a performer coming in 1960 at New York City’s Town Hall.
She first came to the attention of NFB producers Joe Koenig and Bob Verrall in 1966, when she was the subject of a film by Ron Kelly for CBC-TV’s Telescope series.
Obomsawin was invited to speak to NFB directors and producers, and the following year, was appointed consultant for Indigenous filmmaking at Canada’s public producer.
She dove into filmmaking in 1971 with Christmas at Moose Factory, which she wrote and directed.
Music and art
Despite the demands of a legendary filmmaking career, Obomsawin continues to perform and fight for justice for her people.
As a singer/songwriter, Obomsawin has toured Canada, the United States and Europe performing for humanitarian causes in universities, museums, prisons, art centres and folk art festivals. Her 1988 album Bush Lady features traditional songs of the Abenaki people, as well as original compositions.
For over four decades, Obomsawin has worked as an engraver and print-maker, with exhibitions in Canada and Europe. Mother and child imagery is prominent in her work, which also combines material from her own dreams with animal spirits and historical events.
From June 8 to August 25, 2019, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts presented Alanis Obomsawin, Printmaker/An Artist and her Nation: The Waban-Aki Basketmakers of Odanak, featuring prints by Obomsawin alongside works by members of the Waban-Aki nation at Odanak.
Her artwork has been exhibited at the Maison Lacombe in Joliette, Quebec; the Cinémathèque québécoise and the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal; the Musée des Abénakis in Odanak, Quebec; as well as at the Maison des Arts de Créteil, in Créteil, France.
Alanis Obomsawin was born in New Hampshire on Abenaki territory. When she was six months old, her mother brought her to live on the Odanak reserve northeast of Montreal before returning to the US to work. Alanis thus spent her early years in Odanak. Théophile Panadis, her mother’s cousin, initiated Alanis into the history of the Abenaki Nation and taught her many songs and legends. When her mother returned from the US, Obomsawin and her parents left Odanak for Trois Rivières, where they were the only Indigenous family. Cut off from her roots, speaking little French and no English, Obomsawin held fast to the songs and stories she’d learned on the reserve.
Awards and honours
In January 2022, the retrospective The Children Have to Hear Another Story: Alanis Obomsawin will be presented at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin, in conjunction with the publication Lifework: Alanis Obomsawin.
On December 10, 2020, Ms. Obomsawin received the Rogers-DOC Luminary Award at the DOC Institute Honours, given to an individual who embodies the creative spirit of the Canadian documentary tradition and displays generosity by supporting the next generation of doc-makers through mentorship.
In October, she received the Glenn Gould Prize, as chosen by an international jury. Often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of the arts,” the Glenn Gould Prize is presented once every two years to recognize a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts.
Obomsawin was honoured at the 2020 Gala Québec Cinéma, with the Iris Homage, given to someone who has had an exemplary career and whose work has contributed significantly to the influence of Quebec cinema.
Also in 2020, Obomsawin was asked to serve on the jury for the Documentary Award at the 70th Berlinale.
On June 27, 2019, she was named as a Companion of the Order of Canada—its highest honour, recognizing national pre-eminence or international service or achievement. Obomsawin had been an Officer of the Order of Canada since 2002, following her investiture as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1983.
Also in June 2019, the Kiuna Institution in her home community of Odanak—Quebec’s only Indigenous college—named its library in her honour and is hosting her complete film collection.
In May 2019, she received the Paul Gérin-Lajoie Award for Diversity from ENSEMBLE, a Quebec foundation promoting diversity and respect for differences in education. In April of that year, she received the Distinguished Artist Award from the Vancouver Biennale, for her contributions to art, film, and education.
On November 5, 2018, the Montreal mural arts organization MU inaugurated a new public mural of Obomsawin in the Ville-Marie borough, as part of its Montreal’s Great Artists collection highlighting those who’ve made outstanding contributions to Montreal culture. Designed by Atikamekw artist Meky Ottawa, the mural is located in the heart of the Peter-McGill district, where Obomsawin has been living for more than 50 years.
In October 2018, Alanis Obomsawin received the DGC Honourary Life Member Award at the Directors Guild of Canada Awards in Toronto.
In September 2018, she was presented with the Innersauq Honorary Award from Greenland’s Nuuk International Film Festival for her body of work.
In May 2018, she was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Institute Prize from Concordia University in recognition of her longstanding contribution to the advancement of women.
In December 2017, Obomsawin was named Filmmaker of the Year by Playback magazine. In June of the same year, she became a member of the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as part of its Documentary Branch.
In May of the same year, as Montreal marked its 375th anniversary, Obomsawin was among the first recipients of the Order of Montreal, receiving the title of Commander, its highest distinction, for her exceptional contributions to the city’s cultural life and her exemplary commitment to the community. In March 2017, she received the inaugural Prix Origine at Montreal’s Bâtisseuses de la Cité Awards, for her body of work on Indigenous issues.
In November 2016, Obomsawin received the Technicolor Clyde Gilmour Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association, given to artists whose work has enriched the understanding and appreciation of film in Canada. This award allowed her to select a young filmmaker to whom Technicolor would give $50,000 in services: she chose Amanda Strong. Earlier that month, she was awarded the Prix Albert-Tessier, Quebec cinema’s highest honour.
Earlier that year, in June, she was awarded Quebec’s highest honour overall when she was named a Grande Officière of the Ordre national du Québec.
In February 2015, Obomsawin received a career achievement award from Artistes pour la Paix. The following month, she was named a Companion of the Ordre des arts et des lettres du Québec. Internationally, Obomsawin was honoured in Chile in October 2015 with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Valdivia Film Festival.
In December 2013, the Women’s International Film & Television Showcase in Los Angeles presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Alanis Obomsawin. In November, the Royal Society of Canada named Obomsawin as its Honorary Fellow for 2013, while the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television announced that she would receive its Humanitarian Award (Film and TV) for Exceptional Contributions to Community and Public Service at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards.
In September 2013, Obomsawin was named a recipient of the inaugural Birks Diamond Tribute to the Year’s Women in Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, as chosen by a pan-Canadian selection committee of 12 film critics and arts and culture journalists.
In September 2010, Obomsawin was inducted into the Canadian Film and Television Hall of Fame. In the spring of 2009, she was honoured with an Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. In 2008, she was honoured with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. In May of that same year, she was also the subject of a special retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Obomsawin is the subject of the first-ever book on Native filmmakers, Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker, by Randolph Lewis, published in 2006 by the University of Nebraska Press.
Her many honours also include the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, the Luminaria Tribute for Lifetime Achievement from the Santa Fe Film Festival, the International Documentary Association’s Pioneer Award, the Toronto Women in Film and Television’s (TWIFT) Outstanding Achievement Award in Direction, the Canadian Native Arts Foundation National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and the Outstanding Contributions Award from the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association (CSAA). The latter marks the first time that the CSAA has honoured someone who is not an academic in the field of sociology and anthropology.
In 2019, she received her latest honorary degrees: In May, St. Thomas University conferred its honorary degree for her work as an artist in highlighting social issues. In March, the Université de Sherbrooke presented Obomsawin with an honorary doctorate for her body of work and commitment to social justice and Indigenous rights.
In June 2018, Obomsawin was named an Honorary Doctor of Civil Law by Bishop’s University and an Honorary Doctor of Laws by Ryerson University. In May 2018, she received the Simone de Beauvoir Institute Prize at Concordia University. In May 2017, she received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from McGill University. In May 2016, she received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Dalhousie University.
In June 2013, she received an Honorary Doctor of Arts from Dartmouth College, where she had previously been made a Montgomery Fellow in 2011—just miles from where she had been born in Lebanon, New Hampshire. In May 2010, she received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of British Columbia. In June 2008, she received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Guelph. In October 2007, she received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Western Ontario. She has also received honorary doctorates in law from Trent University and Queen’s University, a fellowship from the Ontario College of Art, an Honorary Doctor of Letters from York University, an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Concordia University and an Honorary Doctor of Literature from Carleton University. She has taught at the Summer Institute of Film and Television in Ottawa.
Former president of Land InSights, Obomsawin is on the board of the Portrait Gallery of Canada as well as the Aboriginal Visual Culture Program: Art, Media, and Design at the Ontario College of Art & Design, and is a mentor with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. She has chaired the Board of Directors of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal and sat on the Canada Council’s First People’s Advisory Board.
She was also a board member of Studio 1, the NFB’s Aboriginal studio, and a former advisor to the New Initiatives in Film, a Studio D program for women of colour and women of the First Nations. As a member of the Board of Aboriginal Voices, she was part of an initiative to obtain a radio licence for the organization. A lifetime member of the Board of Directors for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Ms. Obomsawin has also served as a Member of the Board for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in Vermont and National Geographic International.