Filmmaker Richard Desjardins chronicles the near extinction of the Algonquin people and the squalid living conditions of their few remaining descendants/nIn November, Abitibi-Témiscamingue’s best-known cultural export – Richard Desjardins – released his latest theatrical oeuvre, a jaw-dropping documentary about the genocide of the Algonquin tribes called The Invisible Nation or Le peuple invisible, and for as much as audiences have been shocked, the government is still turning a blind eye.
The film itself is an intensive 93-minute look at the Algonquin communities of Quebec, their population decline from 80,000 to 9,000 and the truly grim conditions in which they presently live. From communities without water or electricity in mould-infested plywood homes, to reserves where the infant mortality rate is five times higher than the rest of the population, The Invisible Nation chronicles the unimaginable circumstances that the Algonquin people suffer.
Desjardins himself recalls how in his childhood, all he knew of the Algonquin people was how he would always see them walking along the 117 highway. “We just wondered why are they there, for a long time it was just that simple question and the just fundamental question, we realized that we did not know anything about them,” he said.
So Desjardins and his long-time collaborator Robert Monderie embarked on a journey to discover the Algonquin people he had come to know while they were filming their landmark 1999 documentary L’erreur boréale.
Needless to say, both Desjardins and Monderie were shocked and horrified by what they discovered. “I did not know that it was forbidden to hunt from 15 kilometres from the road right in the middle of their territory, this says a lot. And that their meat was seized by the provincial police at the time, I did not know that, I did not know,” says Desjardins.
Desjardins recounts the history of the Algonquins and how they lost most of their lands, were deprived of their natural resources and what life is like as a result of such practices. At one point he encounters a Rapid Lake woman, Louisa Ratt, who has lost all five of her children: two in a fire, two from cirrhosis and one from an aneurysm. And yet, Ratt somehow seemed to cope. “It was so horrible and she just stood there making jokes, it was incredible,” said Desjardins.
Desjardins also said in the film that, “If all of the Indians in Canada made up a country, it would rank 63rd in terms of quality of life, next to India and the Congo. And yet Indians don’t qualify for international aid.”
Unfortunately, Quebec Native Affairs Minister Benoit Pelletier disagrees with Desjardins‚Äô vision in the film. “There are disparities in the different Algonquin communities and it’s not true that everything is going wrong,” Pelletier said in a recent Montreal Gazette article. “The village of Kitigan Zibi is a healthy one and things are looking good in Lac Simon and Timiskaming as well.”
In Desjardin’s film, however, he presents statistics on how in Lac Simon, 50 per cent of the community’s youth have attempted suicide, a far cry from “healthy.”
When asked about Pelletier’s statement Desjardins responded, “Yeah, um, that is not correct. It is not right, I wonder if he, himself could live one or two weeks in one of these communities, I was suggesting that he go there for a couple of weeks and if afterwards he would see it the same way.”
Desjardins also takes a hard line on sovereignty. In his opinion the Algonquin people would suffer a “bitter fate,” if Quebec were to separate. Desjardins notes that, with the exception of the Crees, the province has never ceded territory to the aboriginals of the province. “It would be harder to negotiate with a PQ government than a Liberal government,” he added.
The Invisible Nation is a National Film Board of Canada production that can be ordered for a public screening through their website and is also playing in theatres across Quebec presently. For more information or to order a copy go to: www.onf.ca/webextension/peuple-invisible/