“Unless you can actually fly in there, you would never believe that what you were seeing was in Canada,” says Charlie Angus, Timmins-James Bay NDP MP in reference to the Third World-like living conditions in Attawapiskat, Ontario.
Attawapiskat is the subject of Canada: Apartheid Nation, a new documentary by director Angela O’Leary and producer Laurie Stewart doing the festival circuit. This 26-minute film delves into the hardcore reality of life on the tiny, fly-in-only reserve to show – up close and personal – how the Canadian government has failed these people.
While this Cree community has made recent headlines because its housing situation is so dire that there are literally hundreds of people living in temporary shelters and others in uninsulated tents, wood sheds or black-mould infested homes, O’Leary has gone beyond the headlines.
“My goal was to really show it! You do hear a lot about the living conditions and a lot about the issues in the news, but not as much as you actually should. A lot of the news stories are just one-minute clips or still photos that just don’t capture what is really going on and what people are actually experiencing. I wanted to bring this to life,” said O’Leary.
In her film, O’Leary shows just how bad things really are: the lack of access to clean water and the effects of contaminated water on the residents, plus inadequate health care, education and housing conditions. In all, the film paints a picture so bleak and dismal that as Angus says, it is hard to believe this is Canada where life is supposed to be so good.
All of these factors are then juxtaposed with the fact that one of Canada’s richest diamond mines is operating only miles away from the community.
“This was not a documentary that I did for people who are already interested in the situation on First Nations reserves. I didn’t want to appeal to the people who are already sympathetic to the cause. I wanted to get to the people who don’t care, for lack of a better expression. There are so many people who could care less and don’t understand why these residents keep complaining when they don’t have to pay any taxes and get free education. They are like ‘What’s their problem?’” explained O’Leary.
Having never made a film before, O’Leary said she first got the idea when she worked on remote First Nations communities, like Eabemetoong First Nation, as a young woman 20 years ago while teaching water safety for the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.
When she returned home to her northern Ontario community of Espanola, she said nobody would believe her when she told them the terrible living conditions she had witnessed.
Twenty years later, O’Leary wanted to see if conditions had improved and was shocked to discover that not only had nothing changed, but the stories of devastating life circumstances were barely penetrating the mainstream news save for the occasional headline. At that, she felt that most people were still ignoring the situation. Her film in itself is a call to action.
And, so far, having screened the film at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa and at the Toronto Indie Film Festival, the reaction has been that more needs to be done to deal with this situation. Yet, having made the documentary within the last year, a state of emergency was recently declared in Attawapiskat regarding the dire housing crisis.
“I am a white, middle-class Canadian and in that I consider myself to be someone who is privileged. There are many people like me who are absolutely ignorant that this kind of situation exists, that there are people in Canada who don’t have water. It is those people that need to know,” said O’Leary.
And it is for this reason that O’Leary is looking to take what can be called Canada’s shame abroad as the film has now been entered into a series of major film festivals, including Sundance and Slamdance in the States as well as several festivals in Europe.
By screening her film as often as possible, O’Leary hopes that these remote communities like Attawapiskat with living conditions on par with Third World countries may finally see the Canadian government take action to level the playing field for Canada’s First Peoples.
For more info: www.canadaapartheidnation.com