‘Trick or Treaty?’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A politically charged account of the past and present struggles faced by Canada’s Indigenous population

Alanis Obomsawin’s latest homegrown documentary premiered in Toronto's Masters section

For most of the world, Canadian politics currently boil down to Mayor Rob Ford hitting the crack pipe, and many non-Canucks can’t even name the country’s actual Prime Minister (it’s Stephen Harper). So it’s all the more refreshing to have caught the Toronto premiere of Trick or Treaty?, an informative, activist account of the struggles faced by Canada’s Native population – known locally as First Nations people – that revisits a major political setback they suffered over a century ago.

Directed by veteran artist-filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, whose prolific body of work (including last year’s TIFF selection, Hi-Ho Mistahey!) has focused on local Indigenous issues for more than forty years, this impassioned cri de coeur can sometimes feel like it’s preaching too much to the choir. But mostly, the film offers up a revealing and at times, moving chronicle of a bold new social movement that should find resonance among documentary fests and select pubcasters.

Signed in 1905 by tribal leaders clearly unaware of what they had agreed to, Treaty No. 9 (also know as the “James Bay Treaty”) was supposed to be an evenhanded land sharing accord between Northern Ontario’s First Nation representatives and the Government of Canada. In reality, it granted the latter permission to use reserved territories more or less to their own ends, with little regard for the social and economic wellbeing of the area’s original residents, not to mention the environment.

A hundred years later, the long-lasting effects of the agreement can be seen in the diminishing quality of life for those still living there, with a suicide rate – especially among youths – that mirrors certain third world countries. Unsatisfied with the federal government’s refusal to answer ongoing demands, one brave woman, Chief Theresa Spence, began a hunger strike in 2013 to protest the situation, just as a popular movement known as “Idle No More” started making headways in the community.

Chronicling recent First Nation demonstrations and marches (including a 1,600 kilometer trek initiated by six teenagers), while digging back into the dirty history behind the Treaty itself (the “Trick” of the film’s title), Obomsawin blends together past and present to show how Native elders were originally bamboozled, and how their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now rising up to take action. It’s an earnest political statement that’s somewhat hampered by the lack of any real dissenting opinions (if they exist), though the emotional, impromptu speeches made by certain protesters are certainly convincing enough.

Cutting together photos, archive footage, talking head interviews and scenes shot at rallies held on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, Trick or Treaty? is rather classical in form, even if Obomsawin allows herself a few flights of fancy, especially during a transfixing closing sequence set to John Trudell’s song “Crazy Horse.” Otherwise, she plunges her camera into the daily grind of a small but forceful campaign, capturing fleeting moments of victory and grace, such as a tribal dance performed in the rain by a lone young woman – a singular and poetic act of resistance.

Production company: National Film Board of Canada
Director: Alanis Obomsawin
Producer: Alanis Obomsawin
Executive producer: Annette Clarke
Directors of photography: Rene Sioui Labelle, Philippe Amiguet
Editor: Alison Burns
Composer: Alain Auger
Sales: National Film Board of Canada

No rating, 85 minutes

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