Alanis Obomsawin is Canada’s best known Aboriginal filmmaker. With her long list of over 30 documentarries, including Incident at Restigouche and Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Obomsawin has spent the past three decades investigating the issues and problems faced by Natives in Canada.

Though her latest, Professor Norman Cornett: Since When Do We Divorce the Right Answer From an Honest One?, does not deal directly with a Native issue, it is the story about injustice and free thought being expunged. The film centres on Norman Cornett, a non-tenured Religious Studies professor at McGill University – that is until he was dismissed without cause in the summer of 2007. To this day, McGill has never given an explanation for its decision.

Cornett, who had the love and respect of his students, is not your typical professor by any stretch of the imagination. As shown in the film, he begins every new semester with the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s classic song, Another Brick in the Wall.

“We don’t need no thought control” seems to be the mantra of this unorthodox professor. Think for yourself and come up with your own ideas – this is the approach Cornett’s students are exposed to.

Recently, I sat down with Obomsawin to discuss her latest film, her work with the Terre en vue/Land InSights film festival and the importance of Aboriginal filmmaking.

The Nation: The story of Professor Cornett is quite compelling. What drew you to the story?

AO: Since 2001 I have been to Dr. Cornett’s classroom three or four times a year to watch his students deal with various guests. I felt his teaching style was not only incredible but important and that all students should have a professor like him. He had shown some of my films and would then invite me as well as others to discuss the content. I liked that he invited many of our people to his class –  politicians, artists, filmmakers, dancers and people from Kahnawake and Kanehsatake. It was wonderful for us to be a part of the class and get into conversations and share dialogue.

TN: You have been a filmmaker for a long time now, how has it changed over the years?

AO: Nothing’s changed really because my main interest has always been education. I’ve toured a lot of classrooms with youth of all ages teaching them about stories, culture and games. I was very impressed with Dr. Cornett because he allowed us to share that!

TN: Throughout the film I noticed a very diverse group of guests in his class and different subject matters being discussed. To this day McGill has not given a reason for Dr. Cornett’s dismissal, why do you think that is?

AO: There have been lots of rumours but McGill has never given a reason why he was dismissed. I wrote them two letters inviting either the dean or someone from the administration to discuss the situation. I wanted to interview them and I wanted them to say what they wish, but they never even answered. I thought it was very bad manners for a university.

TN: You have been part of Terre en vue/Land InSights since the beginning. How has the festival changed since its inception?

AO: It’s been growing every year, and there’s more and more people watching the films. The people are getting more experience, and there are so many new films which is very encouraging. In terms of entertainment, they have a lot of artists who come to perform, to sing, to dance and to do artwork on the site. It brings a lot Nations together – not just from here, but from other countries. So it’s quite precious to us.

TN: We see a lot negative stories about Native people in the media. How important is it to get our stories out there?

AO: It’s more than important. People are discovering all the talent we have. We have writers and filmmakers. We have our own television channel, APTN, that shows everyone’s work is broadcast quality. We have our national radio station with Aboriginal voices radio and there’s a lot of reserves that have their own radio stations. There’s a lot that people don’t know so when people come in to read their writings and people are overwhelmed by how beautiful it is.

It’s also not so much about negative or positive. Things that happen need to be documented and people take it as negative because most of the time it has to do with land or natural resources. Many Aboriginals have had issues because people want to take away our land and use our resources instead of allowing us to develop it ourselves. For example, there are many reserves that have polluted water and that is a crime. The government says it’s going to send someone to do a study but how long do you have to do research before doing something about such a problem? You worry about washing your children in that water; you can’t live without water. Where is the clean water for our people? What does it take to deal with this issue? The main source for living is water!

I want to say I appreciate all the progress that has been done and this is one of the reasons why I made this film because I appreciated what Dr. Cornett did for our people in his classroom! It changed the way students thought about us; they came out the class with a whole new perspective on Native people.

TN: How important is getting our youth involved with telling our stories?

AO: It’s very important because so many of the youth have nowhere to go or any outlets to be heard. All the youth, all the people, are important because they are living. They have a life and life is sacred, sacred for all people, including those on the street. When I see our people on the street and others look down at them, I cry inside because it costs nothing to just smile at a person and say good morning. In the eyes of those people it makes a difference for that day and when they think about their lives, they feel a little less forgotten. I know when someone smiles at me it means that I matter. So when people ask what can they do, they can start by doing that.