In 1990 a developer was permitted to expand a golf course and build condominiums in Montreal. Straightforward enough on the surface, but the land they wanted to build on was ancestral land of the Mohawk people of that region. They had been attempting to make a land claim there for years, but with that claim not being in place at the time they were not even consulted nor would the municipal government even speak to them about it.
I am sure I am missing all the nuance and detail of this story, but the result of this was a 78-day standoff between the Mohawk people and the government that resulted in one death and over 100 wounded, mostly on the Mohawk side. This is the Oka Crisis.
It is a truly Canadian story, and a black mark on our record of dealing with First Nations peoples, which is mostly just a series of black marks. This is the story that Beans, the new coming of age film by Tracey Deer.
Kiawentiio stars as the titular Beans, a name she goes by because white people can’t pronounce her actual name Tekahentahkhwa. She’s bright, smart, and empathetic. She has a good home life and at age 12 is set to go to a prestigious private high school.
Once The Oka Crisis starts, everything is put on hold. Her mother brings Beans and her younger sister to a peaceful protest, and before too long, the police arrive and start lobbing tear gas and shooting. A gun battle erupts, with women and children caught in the middle.
The rest of the film follows Tekahentahkhwa as she tried to figure out her place in the world. She starts hanging out with some older kids, rebelling against her family and the identity they helped her construct. It is a typical coming of age story, with Tekahentahkhwa gradually coming into her own as a person and a proud, indigenous person.
Beans is made all the more powerful but the contexts it lives in. Within the film, in which women and children fleeing the conflict are subjected to horrible acts of racial violence, there is archival news footage of the actual standoff and interview with the populace of Montreal. Casual, and not so casual, racism permeates these clips and the whole film.
In the real world, these types of conflict are happening to this day, as recently as this year when police stormed barricades put up by the Wet’suwet’en here in British Columbia, attempting to stop a pipeline from building on their land without their permission. Canada has come a long way, but Canada has a long way to go, too.
The primary plot of Beans doesn’t contain much you probably haven’t seen before, but it also presents what it is from a point of view we don’t listen to enough in this country. It presents a slice of life, and a slice of Canadian history I am sure that many would prefer to forget. Now, more than ever, we mustn’t forget, and this makes Beans a powerful and important film of this moment.
Beans won the Best Canadian Film award at this years Vancouver International Film Festival. No word on a release plan, but you do have the rest of today (October 7th, 2020) to watch it on VIFF Connect.