The Oka Crisis and Modern Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Screens

By Max von Schilling

The history of Indigenous cinema in Canada is, like all things to do with Aboriginal people in this country, shockingly recent. Even using the NFB’s Challenge for Change initiative in 1968 as a starting point, there were few actual feature films made and released in this era about their perspectives, especially in a sympathetic view. 


Indigenous filmmakers were simply not given the resources or opportunities to tell their stories prior to the modern era, often used for their iconography and to fulfill a “sage mentor” position within stories. Even in American cinema, audiences would mostly see them portrayed as villains, such as in John Ford’s The Searchers and countless other Westerns, or as background to stories in which white people assimilate into their culture and ranks as in Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans.

If we are to pick a specific turning point, I believe it to be the Oka Crisis in Quebec in the summer of 1990. In a town just north of Montreal, a golf club had announced plans to expand its course into previously claimed land by the Mohawks. Rebuking this desired expansion, protests broke out, eventually leading to the Canadian military being called to quell the resistance that was bubbling up. Through modern eyes, it’s quite simply horrific. A capitalist claim to stolen land that is fully defended by the government, all while they run a smear campaign on the victimized population.


It marked a major turning point in conflicts between Indigenous people and the government of Canada, effectively simplified to a breaking point in which the anger, resentment, and oppression could not be kept in any longer. So too are all these emotions then represented in the art that would arise soon after.


To talk about the Oka Crisis is also to talk about Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, Alanis Obomsawin’s on-the-ground documentary about the events from the Indigenous perspective. The film, which rightfully belongs towards the top of any list of the greatest Canadian movies ever made, links together the titular 270 years of oppression that First Nations people have suffered, highlighting the colonial tyranny of North American settlers and their steamrolling of the land’s original inhabitants. Tying that together with the Oka Crisis, it highlights the cycle of oppression and violence faced by this population, fed up with having no voice in the matter and choosing to fight back. 


Released in 1993, it is the definitive look at the conflict, making the Indigenous perspective clear and showcasing how much the government had left them out to dry, using all its might to beat down on those they saw as lesser. Obomsawin was one of the filmmakers most utilizing the aforementioned NFB initiative to boost Indigenous issues and perspectives, but she had never received as much attention as Kanehsatake.


Just one year after the Oka Crisis, however, Clearcut was released. Directed by Polish filmmaker Ryszard Bugajski, it tells the story of a white lawyer attempting to help a First Nations community from having their land deforested. Sound familiar? While this film could’ve very easily fallen into the white saviour trope, having its lawyer save the day using the laws of the oppressor, it instead focuses on Indigenous actor Graham Greene’s character, Arthur, who essentially kidnaps the lawyer and tortures him for his continued exploitation of Aboriginal struggles. It’s a film with no easy answers or outs, at first offering sympathy for the white character who is continually put in harm’s way, only to be persuaded further and further away as Arthur lambasts him for his belief in colonial structures and distanced view on the entire situation. 


The iconography of the protests directly calls back to the Oka Crisis, not to mention the entire thesis of Obomsawin’s yet-to-be-released film marking the resistance of Indigenous people. They’ve suffered for centuries at the hands of white people, and yet when they begin to fight back, they’re labelled as savages and inhumane. Both films force the audience to think deeply about who the real victims are, often not conforming to the black-and-white, Hollywood-ized view of the world.


These films, as well as slowly changing perspectives across the country, allowed for a wider array of films to be made and released that showcased Indigenous stories—even if some were told slightly through the eyes of white people. Films like Black Robe, Kabloonak, Dance Me Outside, or Windigo offered what could only be called the bare minimum: fair representation of oppressed peoples, their histories of maltreatment, and their optimistic future. On the other side of the coin, however, one only has to realize that every single one of those films mentioned was made and released prior to the final residential school closing.


As the millennium turned, so too did the tides of independent filmmaking. Digital cameras were on the horizon, removing the gatekeeping barriers of expensive equipment and allowing anyone and everyone the opportunity to tell their stories. This is particularly important with Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, a 2001 film that serves as the very first feature film to be made in the Inuktitut language. It tells the story of an Inuit legend, focusing on Atanarjuat himself and the tribal strife caused by his marriages and a jealous adversary. Premiering at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, it won the Camera d’Or, an award given to the best debut film that year, later sweeping the Genies—essentially the Canadian Oscars. 


It was a major cultural moment in Canada, a change in regime to no longer keep these stories at bay, accepted by the country and the world. Atanarjuat regularly appears at the very top of lists made to decide the best Canadian films ever, also paving the way for further Indigenous filmmakers to get their start in this country. Even in the last 10 years, films like Searchers, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, and Beans have changed the landscape on what Indigenous stories can be told, all owing a debt to Kanehsatake and Atanarjuat in breaking that barrier in the first place. 


There is still obviously a long long way to go in reparations for the history of mistreatment of Indigenous people in this country. There has been meaningful progress in the last few years, but it’s difficult not to see it as the first few steps in climbing a mountain. Films and art have and will continue to aid in this battle, offering perspectives and stories that would otherwise not be available to a wider audience. They’re vital in making real change occur, not only in the filmmaking landscape of this country but in the political climate as well. With the doors opening further and further, offering more opportunities to Indigenous filmmakers, one can only hope that it leads to seeing more important, underrepresented voices finally seen on screen.


And, as always, here are the locations you can watch the Canadian films mentioned:

  • Clearcut: Kanopy, Tubi
  • Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance: NFB, Amazon Prime, Tubi
  • Black Robe: Rentable from Usual Locations, Also borrowable from the Toronto Public Library
  • Kabloonak: Not currently available digitally.
  • Dance Me Outside: Tubi
  • Windigo: Rentable from Usual Locations
  • Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner: Netflix, NFB, CTV
  • Searchers: CBC Gem
  • The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open: Crave, CBC Gem
  • Beans: Hoopla


Posted in Blog and tagged .