VIFF Review: ‘Inconvenient Indian’ is a powerful look at the past, and present, of Indigenous life in Canada

America is in the news right now. Police are rioting brutally against protestors who have been demonstrating against police brutality for months now. Black Lives Matter, but the police don’t seem to have received the message.

There’s a perception that Canada is immune or exempt from this type of action, and that when you cross the border from America into Canada everything bad just sort of stops. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. Canada has a long and storied history of mistreating the indigenous peoples of our country, while portraying that history as peaceful.

Inconvenient Indian, the new film from director Michelle Latimer based on the book by Thomas King, aims to shine a light on our perceptions of Indigenous culture in Canada and America, and in the process becomes one of the most important pieces of Canadian media of the year.

Latimers film is not a narrative feature, but also isn’t quite a documentary in the traditional sense, instead choosing to tell individual stories, highlight some practices, and speak about major events in our history, and then tie them together with a Thomas King narrating the story of Coyote and the Ducks.

The end result is a free-flowing feeling more than specific knowledge –though it has that too– about how it is for Indigenous peoples of Canada to exist in this country.

Inconvenient Indian
Inconvenient Indian

History“, the film points out, “is just stories. But they aren’t just any stories, they’re not chosen by chance. They’re a closely guarded record of agreed upon interpretations that explain how we got from there to here”.

Who agrees, is the question. History is written by the winners, and while we may not have had an open war here in Canada, we have waged war on Indigenous culture for over a century. One of the more powerful sections of the films talks about the generation of culture lost to the Residential Schools, a government sponsored religious school system designed to remove children from their own culture and indoctrinate them into white Canadian culture and “kill the Indian in the child.” This horrendous practice seems like something from the dark ages, but the last one closed within my lifetime, only 24 years ago in 1996.

As a result indigenous culture has a huge gap, with an ever-dwindling generation of elders still practicing their traditions, a middle generation irreparably damaged, and a young generation starting to want to reclaim their heritage and bring it into the future. Indigenous filmmakers, artists, and game developers are highlighted, which is great, but they are fighting to reclaim something that they never should have lost.

A later quote in the film from Thomas King reads thus:

You can’t judge the past by the present. It’s a splendid slogan. it permits us to set aside the missteps of history and offers a covenant for the future, allowing us to be held blameless for the decisions we make today. Ignorance; this is the defence. If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have done what we did.

-Thomas King

What makes Inconvenient Indian powerful is that it doesn’t us get away with this. After a long section of various indigenous efforts to reclaim culture and foster some hope, the film also draws a straight line from our collective past to our present ignorance and directly shows the police violently arresting Wetʼsuwetʼen people in BC protesting a pipeline to be built across their land without their consent.

We know now what we know now, and we’re doing now what we did then. We have come far, but we have so much further to go.

Inconvenient Indian is an engaging look at Indigenous culture and how it has been shaped by colonialism, one that should make every Canadian question how we have acted in the past and how we are acting in the present. If you see one documentary this year, make it this one.

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