With the help of the National Film Board of Canada, Alanis Obomsawin has put together a damning account of the signing of Treaty No. 9 in Trick or Treaty? The document responsible for the displacement of First Nations and the loss of land is much invoked but rarely understood, most especially by those who signed it.
Pairing an exploration of the treaty’s history with the onset of the Idle No More movement in 2012, Trick or Treaty? quickly sets up a situation in which two understandings of the agreement compete. As Obomsawin digs deeper with the help of Treaty No. 9 expert Dr. John Long, it becomes obvious that the conflicting understandings were a result of direct deception rather than misunderstanding.
Obomsawin has collected plenty of footage from the Idle No More gatherings at Parliament Hill and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike. Most of it has a rough and unpolished feel, mimicking the grassroots movement that suddenly burst onto Canada’s conscience two years ago before creating a storm of a response. But sometimes that unedited style distracts from the documentary’s ambition. At other times, the extended focus on the movement seems to take the documentary away from answering its fundamental and titular question.
Lingering shots of dancing and singing strive for emotional resonance—along with a drawn-out conclusion that attempts to contrast First Nation priorities with Western ones—aren’t nearly as powerful as Dr. Long’s explanation of what the treaty signers were told versus what the document actually said. In a plain room with a class of just a handful of First Nation students, he lays bare the contents of the signed treaty and it’s the reaction of his audience—that information clashes with what’s been passed down to them from the signatories understanding of the agreement—that makes a far stronger impact.
In that sense, the pairing of the treaty revelations sits awkwardly with the Idle No More calls to have the treaties honoured. although the documentary goes some way to clarifying what First Nations mean when making that demand. Even so, the optimism of the movement in 2012 is often uncomfortable to watch when considered from the present day. Obomsawin doesn’t offer up any solutions to these conflicting threads, instead leaving it for the viewer to understand and perhaps reconcile on their own. It’s obvious from the beginning what her answer to the title’s question is, and perhaps her idealized approach—despite stark evidence to the contrary—is that same hope that continues to try to turn trick to treaty.
Trick of Treaty? premieres Friday, Sept 5 at 2:30 p.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3. Also screens Saturday, Sept. 6 at 9 a.m. at AGO Jackman Hall.