Transcript: Ep. 4 - The boy who changed Indigenous kids' health care | Nov 26, 2019

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I remember his dark,
full head of hair.
(People chattering)
Well, Jordan, he couldn't talk.
Never spoke. Never cried.
He didn't have any tears.
We had to feed him
through his stomach.
So many difficulties.
There he goes.
Look at those elbows.
Good job.
Good job, Jordan. You did it.
Jordan River Anderson
was five years old when he died.
He was born with a condition
that left him unable
to walk, talk, eat or breathe
on his own,
so he spent the first years
of his life in the hospital.
Two years in, his family
was told he could go home,
but there was an issue:
neither the Province
nor the federal government
could agree on who would pay for
this care at home.
So, he stayed where he was.
Two years turned to three,
then four, and then five.
If he had been
a provincial child,
same situation,
if he had been deemed
a provincial responsibility
here in Manitoba,
he would have been released,
no questions asked,
and the entire per diem
would have been covered.
But it was because of
his Indian status,
federal responsibility,
that he never had
that opportunity.
Six years after Jordan's death,
the First Nation Child
and Family Caring Society
released a report that outlined
the impact
jurisdictional disputes
like the one that kept him
in hospital
have had on Indigenous children
in Canada.
A few years later,
the government
unanimously passed
Jordan's Principle:
a motion that guarantees access
to the products, services
and supports
to all First Nations children
living in Canada.
But fair implementation
of the motion has been troubled.
And I say, with respect,
that as a matter
of reconciliation,
these things have to be
The time has to stop
for us listing inventories
of things
that haven't been done.
We have a responsibility
in these proceedings
to actually create results.
Our son has treaty rights,
just like the rest of
these children.
They have rights to be in
their communities,
to be in their homes.
Racism and discrimination is
what's keeping services away
from our children,
and that's the bottom line.
Following the story
the entire time
was documentary filmmaker
Alanis Obomsawin.
In her film,
Jordan River
Anderson: the Messenger,
which debuted at TIFF this year,
she examines the impact
Jordan's Principle has had
on Indigenous families
and the battle for true, genuine
implementation of the law.
This is Obomsawin's 53rd film,
so we get a bit into her career
as a filmmaker
and the unique perspective
she's gained
about Indigenous issues
in Canada through the lens.
So, let's, I guess, just start
from the beginning.
Who was Jordan River Anderson?
The story is about
a young baby, really,
who was born with needs of--
He never talked
and couldn't walk.
And so, he was born
in the hospital in Winnipeg,
the Children's Hospital,
and remained there
the whole time of his life.
When he was two years old,
the doctor said
that he could go home now.
Uh, or to, uh,
another place where--
As long as it would be close to
a hospital.
And he was two years old,
and now there became an argument
between the provincial
government in Manitoba
and the federal government
on who is going to pay for
the expense.
And, uh, it got, uh,
pretty serious, I guess.
And then they said, "Well,
Jordan is going to remain
"in the hospital until we know
who's responsible
for the cost."
So, he lived
until he was five years old,
and that's
when they finally said
that they had figured it out.
But he passed away. He was five.
So, he spent all the five years
in the hospital.
So, there was a lot of people
who were very upset about this,
and didn't want other children
to have to go through
the same kind of thing.
And then in 2007,
they passed--
I don't know if it's called
a motion
in the House of Commons--
Which is called
Jordan's Principle,
to direct the government
to their responsibilities
to provide money
and services, health services,
to the child,
to all children who would apply
through Jordan's Principle.
And it was a unanimous decision,
Like, everyone
in the House agreed?
But nobody got money through it.
Like, all the people
who applied, the families,
they never seem to qualify
because they formed
a group of people
who were part of
analyzing the situation
and deciding if the child
could get help
through Jordan's Principle,
and they never qualified.
They would always say
there was some--
For one reason or another,
they wouldn't get any help.
So then, it went to court.
You know, over several years.
We filmed everything in court,
and, uh,
it was unbelievable.
Because in 2016,
the tribunal made its decision
and they said that
the government
was discriminating
against children
of Indigenous descent.
And, um,
they ordered the government
to change their ways
and said that, uh,
anyone who applies
through Jordan's Principle,
the help has to come right away,
Whether it's provincial or
federal that gets the complaint,
that government should pay
what the expenses are
and figure out later
their fight,
and if they feel
there is another government
that's responsible.
So, this applied to
Indigenous youth, kids.
Not just on reserve,
but off reserve, correct?
Off reserve also.
And, like, I mean,
you know, most Canadians,
I guess, when they are sick
or they need help,
especially kids,
I guess it's the provincial
government that's funding them.
But because--
In the city, yeah.
Because, I guess,
if you're an Indigenous person,
the federal government is
supposed to have jurisdiction.
So, I guess, that's where this--
That's where the fight was.
The fight was about. Okay.
And the film is called
River Anderson: the Messenger,
and I wonder what message
Jordan was giving.
Imagine what message.
It's a big message, because now,
as everyone is getting help,
it's all under
Jordan River Anderson's name.
And, um,
the, uh--
In 2016, the government
was not obeying the rule
that the tribunal had ordered.
They kept appealing against it.
So, it took a long time.
Cost a lot of money.
And finally, by 2017,
that's when it all changed,
as you can see in the film.
Now, everybody that was applying
to Jordan's Principle
received the help,
which was extraordinary,
you know?
It's such a wonderful thing,
that they really started to do
what they were supposed to do.
Earlier, the Ministry of Health
had managed to put $11 million
aside for all the children
who were in needs,
and they never spent one penny.
The money was there,
but every time
that somebody applied
for help,
they would meet, either by phone
or, I guess, in person,
and analyze the project
and always manage not to give
any money.
And so, the $11 million was
returned to, I guess, Treasury,
and, uh,
they even gave each other
an award
for not spending the money.
Meanwhile, you had thousands
of children
that were very much in need.
And that is really amazing,
you know?
Just to think about
that kind of attitude.
And, uh--
So finally, it all changed.
Then, when Dr. Philpott
was named
the Minister of Health Services
for Indian Affairs,
I think she really influenced
a lot of change,
because that's when
it really started to move.
And also, there's another woman
who works in that--
In the services of health
for Indigenous children.
She's in the film,
and her name is Dr. Gideon.
ALANIS (in film, interviewing):
When you talk about the history,
I'm curious to find out
what is told to the employees.
DR. GIDEON: We would say that
that was based on
a discriminatory approach,
and not one that the government
is currently committed
to implementing.
The tribunal had indicated
that that was not
the definition
of Jordan's Principle
that we should be utilizing.
And so, we've actually received
an amended policy authority
under the Child First Initiative
to reflect the May 2017 orders
of the tribunal.
She's so incredible.
Like, all of a sudden,
the discourse
really starts changing.
Up until then, whenever
they were arguing in court,
the lawyers
for the secretary of state
would say,
"No. The government has done
everything they can,
and they are complying,
and they're obeying the rules."
Always defending and denying.
And now, with this person
who is new
in terms of
that kind of responsibility,
Dr. Gideon,
she's very different.
She says, "No. We were wrong.
"And now, the tribunal
has ordered us
"to do it differently
and to help,
and that's what we're doing."
And she doesn't say,
"Oh, no, we did it right."
No language like that.
And it, to me, witnessing this
was very important,
to see the difference,
which at the end of the line,
you realize and you know
that when some of our
Indigenous people are working
in those departments--
And there was such a revelation,
to see all the people
that fought for 10 years, more,
you know,
and all of a sudden now
are getting all the help.
So, it goes to show you
that if you fight to the end
and you believe in
what you're doing
and it's just--
And it's the rights
of the children in this case.
It's not a privilege;
it's their right.
Well, someone in this film
who fights and doesn't give up
is Cindy Blackstock.
Yeah. Your face says it all.
Tell us a bit about her.
Oh, she is so incredible.
Like, we're so lucky
to have her.
And she's very smart
and obviously, knows the story
and does a lot of research,
In court,
she's unbelievable.
In my hands, I carry
the baby blanket
of Jordan River Anderson.
A gift from the Anderson family
in honour of Jordan's Principle.
I've said many times
that I was shocked
we had to file this case
to bring equity for children,
and I cannot even find a word
in my vocabulary
to tell you how shocked I am
to stand here today.
And what about 15 months
and the government's calls
to patience?
The word "patience" is really
bound up in this blanket.
It's the same idea they used
to talk about Jordan's situation
when they had repeated
case conferences
to resolve his dispute.
And "patience" means
"to suffer without complaint."
First Nations children have been
suffering without complaint
for the 10 years since this case
has been filed,
and for the 15 months
since the decision was made
providing a very clear plan
for the respondent
to move forward.
They really tried to
make her sound crazy
or, you know,
just humiliate her,
but they can't touch her.
And she's working still,
to the end,
and has realized
a lot of different things
for the children.
I heard you
in another interview.
I think you said that
when you're making a doc,
you have to have a story
that you want to tell
before you start shooting.
So, I guess I know you'd covered
this territory before
We Can't Make
the Same Mistake Twice.
So what was, I guess,
the story for this film,
going into it?
Well, I started, myself,
in 2011
to start documenting
what was happening
with Jordan's Principle.
And in between 2011 and now
I've made six other films.
But I was always having--
Watching what's happening
with Jordan's Principle.
And I couldn't finish the film
up until now
because there was
a lot of arguments
and a lot of fighting,
but nothing was happening.
So, it's only last October
that I saw the difference,
and it got to be very exciting
and really, um,
different in terms of--
It's a very profound
It's more than hope, you know?
You see the possibility.
And to have the government
having the right attitude
and working together,
it was very new
and very extraordinary.
This is why I decided
I could finish the film.
Well, at the centre of this doc
and a few of your other films,
there's this struggle between
Indigenous people
and bureaucracy.
And I just wonder:
how has paperwork been used
against Indigenous people
in Canada?
Well, it's from way back.
They, uh, the attitude
and the most damage
as far as I'm concerned
is really the educational system
with the books that
were written by the church
and designed to really create
hate towards our people
and they really succeed.
They've done that very well.
And it went on
for many generations.
You know,
the teacher opens the book,
it's Canadian history,
and they start calling us
savages and we scalped the poor
white men that came here,
and all the stuff,
and, you know, when I was
a young girl, often I heard,
"Your language is,
um, Satan's language."
So, imagine saying that to, uh,
the people of this country
and in the classroom
as an official teaching.
It, uh, it was awful
for a very long time.
Well, I mean, I saw a lot
of those images in films.
If you go back, I guess,
you know, decades ago.
Hollywood films.
Hollywood films especially.
Like, John Wayne,
you know, the noble savage.
Um, and yet you work in film,
so I guess--
That's not the kind
of film I make.
Well, that's true, but that sort
of raises an interesting point,
though. I mean, why, uh,
documentaries as opposed to,
maybe say, narrative fiction?
I love documentary because
it's the voice of the people.
It's their own story,
and I love to listen to them
and I always wonder knowing
the history here when I meet,
especially older people,
and they talk to me,
I always think how
did they survive, and often,
first I just do
sound like this here,
listen to people,
before coming with a camera,
and when I feel I understood
what the story is
then I can begin, and also,
it's very good for the people
themself to feel at ease.
You're not there with
the camera in their face
and they're just talking
and it's, uh...
it gets to, often,
people feel at ease
and they say things
sometimes for the first time
in their lives
and it's so moving.
So that later on,
when I come with a crew,
I will interview people on
camera so that the audience
know who that person is.
Then I can always
go back to the first sound,
with other images,
which is always so sacred.
It's just so, so special,
and for me documentary
is really my passion.
Do you stay in touch with
the people after you've--
Yes, some, some--
You know, when I look--
This is my 53rd film,
so a lot of people have
passed away, especially when
I look at some--
Just think of
270 Years of Resistance,
when I look at this film I get
such a lump in my throat
because so many of those people
have passed away who were very
active in the movement
and it's just, uh,
that's the magic of film.
You can see them
after they're gone,
but it's still heavy
to have known them so well
for 78 days and then
they're not there anymore.
Has your style changed at all,
as a filmmaker?
No. It's the same thing.
Same thing, eh?
Um, but you,
you wear a lot of hats.
I mean, you do
singing and songwriting,
I've seen some of
your performances, painting,
and I guess I wonder what
do those offer that maybe
documentary filmmaking
doesn't for you.
I do etchings, and for me,
I've done this for the last
40 years approximately.
And some of my friends say,
"Oh, it's so boring,
how could you do this?"
'Cause, you know,
it's a million lines that
you have to engrave, um.
I work with pewter or copper.
But I love it. It's hours
and hours of, uh,
realizing your drawing,
and, uh, it just
brings me into what I'm--
Why I'm doing this etching
and what's the story,
and I love it. It's very good
therapy for me.
I was just gonna say, is it
therapeutic, I guess, yeah.
Well, you've been telling
stories about Indigenous
communities and history,
uh, 50 years or so going on.
Um, do you think Canada is,
like, I guess,
listening to these stories
differently than maybe
50 years ago?
Are you kidding?
That's for sure.
I would say the last
ten years is very different
and the last
five years is even--
The Reconciliation
of course has done a lot of work
to change that,
and, um, you have--
I have a feeling there's
an ear across the country
everywhere I go.
You really have the feeling
that they're really
listening to you,
and want to hear,
and I would say that,
in general, Canadians want to
see justice done to the people
which we didn't have
that feeling before.
What do you think's
been the change?
I think the change comes
from not just one thing
but from many, uh, many things.
We go back to education,
all those books are gone now,
but they didn't
replace them, really,
but, uh, also, uh,
a lot of our people
are in different places.
We have a lot of teachers,
doctors, lawyers,
judges, name it, any discipline
there's somebody there
that is Indigenous.
So, the educational system
has changed. If you go to--
The first time an Indigenous
person was allowed to enter
university to study
not before 1951
without having
to give up your race.
So, uh, all those things
has slowly made changes,
but right now, uh,
it's very different.
There's an interest,
an honest interest, I think,
that people-- and the also,
the encouraging people
to learn the language again
and to speak it, whereas before
the people were punished if
they spoke their language,
you know?
So, it's a very different time,
and I'm very encouraged
for the future,
and our young
people are welcome.
Most institution
have a special section
that money and a place
for Indigenous people,
whether it's in filmmaking,
in the arts, there's sections.
So, it's not so intimidating
to enter those organizations
because we know that, uh,
you're welcome to go in.
So, that's very different.
How do you choose what
story you want to cover next?
I mean, do you have
something in the works
that you can talk about? Or is--
I don't like to talk about
something that's not finished,
really, but,
of course I'll be making
more than another film,
and, uh...
I just want to tell young people
that everything is possible.
Not to feel incapable.
It's the contrary,
and there's so much
encouragement and anything,
uh, a young person wants to do,
it's possible,
and there will be encouragement
and a feel of being welcome
in these institutions.
Like, the Arts Council,
the Film Board, TeleFilm Canada.
There's a lot of places, and CBC
and, so, we have a large
number of young people
that are doing video work
and APTN of course
employs a lot of people
and also, uh... uh, screen,
everything that's being done
as long as it's
done professionally.
So, there's a lot of, um,
things that we have now that
we didn't for a very long time
have in the past. So...
Are there any
storytellers or filmmakers,
uh, that are inspiring
you right now?
I'm very excited about--
There's so many
people making video,
making films across the country.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous?
Both, but I'm talking about
Indigenous filmmakers now.
It's a lot of--
Just this time at TIFF...
...I think somebody
told me there's 13 films.
That are Indigenous themed?
Oh, wow.
It's very exciting.
There's actually one that's
coming out that I want to see
Blood Quantum.
Have you heard of this?
Yes, I didn't get to see it.
It was shown very late
at night at 12 o'clock.
COLIN: It's a midnight
madness film, yeah.
Well, I was just informed by
our producer that the director--
(Alanis speaking indistinctly)
(Colin laughing)
Well, no, he said that our,
that, uh, your films have
actually inspired the director
Blood Quantum.
So, what do you think of that?
Yeah, that's
what people told me.
It's wonderful, you know?
Like, I made two
films in his community
At the time it
was called Restigouche,
now it's called Restigouche.
The first one was
Incident at Restigouche,
when there was a crisis
there about salmon fishing.
And that was in 1981,
and Jeff told me,
he was a young boy at the time,
and you know, he was
very touched and impress
and felt that he wanted
to do this kind of work.
COLIN: That's amazing,
that you inspire people
and then that you see them
actually get to do it.
ALANIS: Oh, it's great.
COLIN: Yeah.
Do you consider yourself an
activist first, or an artist?
ALANIS: Well, obviously
I was an activist.
You know, because my...
When I--
I was very much angry, 'cause I
got beat up a lot in school.
And I, by the time I was 14,
15, I just...
I was wild, I tell you.
(Colin chuckling)
But when my father died,
I was 12 years old,
and I remember that's
the day I said,
"Nobody's gonna
beat me anymore."
But it doesn't happen just
because you decide, you know.
That was quite a trail
I had to do,
and it started right then.
And lots of fights,
and fistfights.
Both fistfights and...
...Like, arguing, I guess.
COLIN: Yeah, but do you have to
keep doing that, do you think?
Yes, but in a different manner.
This is why I am where I am,
because I fought all the way.
But I'm very happy that I
believe so much in it
that nobody is gonna make me
be different.
And I know that I was right.
At first,
I figure, children have to hear
a different story.
And then, I could sing,
even as a child,
and I knew my history,
so I thought--
I started with Scouts.
I travelled with some Scouts.
COLIN: Boy Scouts?
ALANIS: Boy Scouts.
Told them stories and games,
and I enjoyed every minute.
And in the early '60s,
that's when I really started
touring seriously.
And we still had all the
Residential Schools at that time
so I did a lot
of Residential Schools.
And also in the '60s people
were saying to me,
"Did you know, Alanis,
that 68 percent
of the prison is... Indian,"
as they used to say.
So, I said, "Oh, well that means
my relations are in jail,
I'm gonna go visit them."
What was that experience like?
ALANIS: I did a lot
of touring in prison.
COLIN: Yeah.
ALANIS: Yeah. It was...
It's something I will never
forget. It was--
In a lot of prisons, I was the
first one to go in to entertain,
you know,
that wasn't done before.
So, I could write a book
just on that.
It was just incredible.
COLIN: This is before
Johnny Cash Folsom Prison,
like, you were going
to prisons and--
ALANIS: I don't know
if it was before.
What I'm talking about
is the '60s now.
COLIN: Yeah, that's around
when he did it, I think.
ALANIS: Yes. Yeah.
And I'll just tell you one
little bit... funny.
One time, I'm going to this
maximum prison.
And I arrived there,
and the guard said,
"Oh, you know, Madame Obomsawin,
the population--"
They call the prisoners
the population.
He said, "the population, you
know, it's the first time
"they're making fun
of each other.
'What are you gonna do, go
listen to this woman sing?'"
So, he said, "Maybe
nobody's gonna come."
"Well," I said, "I don't mind.
I'll stay until I'm allowed,
"you know, 4 o'clock, and it's
okay, if they don't come,
I'll just leave,
and I'll wait until then."
And I forget what time... let's
say, 2 o'clock, there's nobody.
Quarter after two, nobody.
Finally, maybe,
twenty to three,
500 prisoners
come in the room.
And I think it was kind of
a cement floor,
if I remember well,
and the snores of chairs,
you know, being moved around.
And so, then the guard
took me to the front,
and they had
a table like this.
And I was-- the microphone
was there,
and I was supposed
to sing from here.
And it was a flat floor,
I couldn't see anybody.
So, I put a chair on the table.
I got another chair.
I got from the chair to the
table, then I sat there,
and I could see everybody.
But the funny part was, I was so
worried that I might look sexy.
(Colin laughing)
So, I put on a nun's apron.
It's like a dress,
a cotton dress.
ALANIS: And I sat there, and
there was two men at the front,
the first row,
they were laughing at me.
They were laughing from, you
know, when it comes from far,
like it's so funny.
COLIN: Yeah.
ALANIS: And I thought, it
reminded me of me and my mother.
She used to always drag
me to church.
And when the priest would go,
"Dominum babiscum..."
I used to laugh. I used to
think it was funny.
Laughing just like these two
prisoners, 'cause my mother
would be so angry at me,
she'd say, "Stop laughing."
And I remember sitting there
with my nun's dress,
and these two guys,
and my drum.
So, anyway,
I started singing
and it was very
distracting to me,
because they were just killing
themselves laughing.
COLIN: Yeah.
ALANIS: So, I said after
the first song, I said,
"If you think it's funny for me
to sit here
and sing for you guys..."
I said,
"these two in the front here,
they're laughing so hard
I'm having a hard time."
I said, "I'm going to sing one
more, and if they do the same
"I'll sit where they are,
and they'll sit here,
they'll sing for us.
Let's see how it feels."
COLIN: Yeah.
ALANIS: And you know, without--
no words, just a feeling,
it was like, "Oh", I thought,
"Oh my God,
they're gonna beat them up."
So, I said, "Oh, no, no,
I defend myself, you know.
There's no problem."
So, I start singing again,
and they were still laughing,
but less, you know.
And then, I'm teaching all the
guys to say some words
in my language, you know,
they're singing with me
and we had so much fun,
including the two guys
who were laughing,
they start singing too.
And then, the guard came.
He said, "Okay, now, you all
have to go back to your cell."
And, you know, yelling.
So, I came down from my throne.
And not one of them went out
without touching my hand,
or kissing me on the...
on the cheek.
And it was so nice after.
But just to go through that,
and me, and even the two guys
were like, they said,
"Oh, we're sorry."
I said, "Listen, I think I
would've done the same."
"Because I must have looked so
funny up there on
that chair on the table."
All kinds of stuff like that.
Yeah, that's a great story.
COLIN: Well, Alanis, thank you
so much for joining us today
and giving us
so much of your time.
ALANIS: Thank you.
I hope that people realize how
much better it is now,
especially in education,
and how all doors are open to
our people,
to our young people,
and it's possible for them
to do whatever it is
they wish to do.
Well said. Thank you.

And that's our show.
Jordan River Anderson
will be streaming
on the National Film Board of
Canada's website
in the fall of 2020.
But NFB has added 20 more of
Alanis' films onto their site,
so be sure to check those out.
And if you like
what you heard,
leave us a review
on Apple Podcasts
and better yet,
tell a friend.
Do you have a favourite
Alanis Obomsawin film?
You can tell us about it by
writing to us at
and you can also follow me on
Twitter @colinellis81.
Thanks to producers Chantal
Braganza and Matthew O'Mara,
and production support
coordinators Nikki Ashworth
and Jonathan Halliwell.
Kathy Vey is Executive
Producer for digital.
We'll catch you at
the next screening.

Watch: Ep. 4 - The boy who changed Indigenous kids' health care