Festival reclaims Canada’s lost voices

Christopher Wong (left) and Howard Adler (right) founded the six-day festival to not only support Aboriginal artists, but to educate people about First Nations, Métis and Inuit issues in and outside of Canada.

At first glance, Ottawa’s newest film festival might seem a little out of place, located in a city better known for the Senate than cinema.

But that’s all part of the plan for Howard Adler, organizer of last month’s Asinabka Film Festival. The indigenous film and media arts festival is strategically located in the same place votes are cast and legislation is passed.

“That’s a huge part of it,” says Adler, who studied both Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton. “Ottawa is the centre of power so we can educate people in the city.”

Asinabka is about indigenous Canadians telling their own stories and having their identities reflected back at them. It’s about reclaiming a lost voice as much as it is about changing perspectives.

“We’re telling our own stories,” says Adler, who is one part Ojibwe, one part Jewish. “(We’re) not letting other people define who we are.”

There are few people more qualified to carry the mantel of lost identity. Each of Adler’s parents had their identity brutally stripped away before he was born: His father survived the Holocaust and his mother survived Canada’s abhorrent residential school system.

“They’re very comparable in a lot of ways,” Adler says of the human tragedies that befell both his parents. “The displacement, the loss of family, the loss of cultural connections.”

It’s estimated that about 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were removed from their homes and forced to attend residential schools in Canada through much of the 19th and 20th centuries. At residential schools, they weren’t allowed to speak their own languages and were often mentally, physically and sexually abused.

Mortality rates, especially before the 1940s, reached 50 per cent.

Canada’s last residential school closed in the 1990s.

Adler says his mother attended the screening of Armand Garnet Ruffo’s A Windigo Tale, a film based on the history of the residential school system.

“When you see these indigenous films, you’re seeing their stories,” says Adler.

Whether they’re comedies, experimental art films or about more tough issues, all indigenous films deal with indigenous issues, says Adler.

“You’re seeing them from (their) perspective. We don’t want to pigeonhole indigenous people into making something about the issues.”

A good example is the work of Ottawa artist Ariel Smith who showed five or six films at the festival, yet typically deals with themes related to women’s rights.

“She’s indigenous but her films don’t necessarily deal with indigenous themes,” says Adler. “You don’t have to tell these types of stories.”

On the other hand, a non-indigenous moviemaker named Graham Schonfield showed a film called Life on the Reserve, showing what life is like in one community.

“I think it’s important for the festival to include non-indigenous voices,” says Adler. “I think it’s a conversation, it’s a dialogue.”

With any luck, the first-ever festival will return and the dialogue will continue next year

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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