On October 16, 2023, Alanis Obomsawin delivered the 69th annual Beatty Lecture at Pollack Hall on McGill’s downtown campus. As the room fell dark her soft voice recalled her childhood, leaving everyone in the audience to paint in their own mind a picture of her early life. She recounted how she spent part of her childhood in Odanak, an Abenaki reserve near Sorel-Tracy, Quebec. “Odanak was very different then, there was no electricity or running water,” she reflected. “My cousins and I spent most of the daytime playing in the commune, chasing horses and watching turtles in the marshland… Collecting pine gum and braiding sweet grass…. Every house we went to you could smell the sweet grass and the ash splints.”
Obomsawin also spoke about her early career, and her work teaching Indigenous people the real story of their nations, and not the settlers’ versions of their history. “I traveled to many places in our country. First to sing, and tell stories to the children in many schools including residential schools in the 60s. I visited several prisons and communities to talk about the real history of our people,” Alanis recalled.
Reflecting on her life’s work, she offered the audience an uplifting message. “Many years passed. I am now 91 years old. A few years ago, I told myself everything has a reason. The fact that I went through so much trouble; I did not want other children to experience these feelings. So, I worked hard to ensure that no other children would be treated like that. Now, we are in 2023, as I travel to many places in the world, I see Canada at the front. There are good people all over the world. I feel respect, curiosity, I know that in general Canadians want to see justice done to our people. Thank you for the tremendous change in most learning places, the true history of our country is now being taught in schools of all levels,” she expressed with emotion.
Obomsawin also expressed her profound respect for Canada’s cultural institutions, including the National Film Board (NFB), where she has worked as a producer and director for more than 50 years. Alanis has made sixty-seven films since 1967, each of them elevating the voices of people whose stories deserve to be told.
In her early work as a consultant with the NFB, she worked on developing educational tools for Indigenous youth to be taught their own history. She concluded her lecture by listing the institutions, including the NFB, which have allowed for all voices to be heard, and thanking the audience for its support of such institutions. “We are lucky to have these institutions that make it possible for all voices to be heard, and to not have to rely on private foundations as many other countries do,” she said. Thank you to all Canadians for supporting these beautiful institutions. Thank you.”
She recalled NFB founder John Grierson’s words. “He believed that people from all different nations should be able to sit in a theater and see themselves on screen. Documentaries would fill the void with the sound of all people. Which I thought was the most beautiful way of ensuring that all the voices would be heard,” she said.
“More interestingly, I was able to produce two educational kits for classrooms, representing two different nations: the Atikamekw in Manawan, Quebec and the L’il”wata in Mont Curie, BC. It was the first time that the voice of a people, in a particular nation, was heard for teaching , instead of books written about them that were mostly false,” she recalled.
Leaving Pollack Hall after her lecture, I thought about Obomsawin’s hope for her people and remembered her beautiful words: “When the sacred smoke of the sweet grass rises over me, in kindness I see the other face of truth, there is love, there is peace in my heart, a gentle day is here. No, our people don’t have to die, someday they will find their place on earth again, and feel the warmth of life and walk in a world of cooperation.”
Listen to the Beatty Lecture on CBC Ideas: Alanis Obomsawin: The Art of Listening | Ideas with Nahlah Ayed | Live Radio | CBC Listen
Guest writer Charlotte Bawol is a McGill undergraduate student in the Faculty of Arts. She attended Ms Obomsawin’s lecture with classmates from her Indigenous historiography seminar, which discusses the coloniality of history and the prospects for articulating Indigenous and Occidental modes of historicity.