Check out our latest Interview with Documentary Filmmaker, Colleen Cardinal

Tell us about your latest project? What inspired its creation? Why is it important?

My latest project The Sixties Scoop: A Hidden Generation started in 2012, I was looking for a way to share my story of what happened to my sisters and me.  At the time I was volunteering with Families of Sisters in Spirit, a grassroots initiative for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. With their encouragement and support I became empowered through sharing my lived experiences at presentations, panels and workshops. My sisters and I had been trafficked through colonial child welfare policies and placed into a non-Indigenous households now loosely named the 60’s Scoop. We experienced a staggering amount of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in that household without any protection or intervention by the State who had failed to protect us. We ended up fleeing that household to escape the physical and sexual violence at the ages of 15. My sisters and I were navigating the world on our own with no supports facing racism, poverty, unresolved trauma and more violence. My eldest sister was murdered when she was 20 years old, she left behind two small children. For my surviving sister and me we would continue living in violent relationships for many years until one day I escaped the violence to start over with my children.

I knew something terrible and profound had happened to us girls as children due to our abusive adoptive household but at that time I didn’t realize how many other Indigenous people were impacted by the systemic racist colonial child welfare policies and how those policies have othered Indigenous people as disposable, incapable or unworthy. The documentary is meant to expose the impacts of intergenerational trauma across generations, loss of language, ceremony and the familiarity of belonging but also the journey of reconnecting with culture, language, birth family and the work that needs to continue for people impacted by assimilative policies like the 60’s scoop.  The film seeks to address the many issues Indigenous adoptee cope with daily in their lives such as living with HIV/AIDS,  being a family member of a missing or murdered Indigenous woman, poverty, mental health, addiction and raising children who are also impacted by our trauma and stopping the cycle of violence.

I had no experience in film making or journalism, I just knew I had a story that needed to be told. I began to look for ways to learn how to make films which led me to take some workshops at Saw Video Media Art Center which is a production center for independent media art. I submitted a grant application for a small equipment grant for equipment and workshops. I successfully won the small grant and it was there I began to learn videography.

I was inspired by a friend of mine who was a journalist, she believed in me and knew sharing my story was important, that it would make waves and help others while exposing a hidden generation of adoptees who have largely been forgotten about and/or whitewashed as Canada’s best intention to save Indian children.

It is another important chapter in the crimes committed by the State against Indigenous people, the stealing of Indigenous children children, erasure of culture and identity for access to lands, resources which Canada is built on.

 The number of women in positions of influence in the film and television industry is few, but this level of representation falls even shorter in terms of First Nations women’s voices. Could you speak to these issues of representation and the importance of who controls and contributes to the popular narrative?

Since my childhood I’ve had very few Indigenous women in the film and television industry to look up to, role model or see myself as a First Nations woman reflected in popular media. In my early adulthood I began to see Indigenous women like Tantoo Cardinal, Tina Keeper, Michelle St. John portraying roles where racism, violence, alcoholism or the stereotypical role of addiction, child welfare involvement and poverty were predominant. These were the images being reflected of Indigenous women in popular media in the early 80’s & 90’s l For the most part, I could relate but there was never context given to why Indigenous women were experiencing these issues. On the very extreme spectrum  I’ve also seen documentaries exploit Indigenous women continually as being victims which lends to this saviour type of ideology that we have no agency and need help or saving which is exactly the mentality that has led Indigenous people being precariously portrayed as perpetual victims.

As a grassroots Indigenous woman, I have no illusions about how little control or influence I have on the popular narrative which is why I chose to do independent media. It is important for Indigenous people to represent their own work, in their own words without taking out critical connections of how State policies have impacted generations of lives. I feel like we still have steep barriers to climb just to break into the world of film and media. Not only is the industry controlled by men, there is an unwritten code of “how things are done” which caters to the patriarchal heteronormative gaze, my goal is not to cater to the old way of doing things but from an Indigenous way that centers wellness, healing and ceremony.

What led you to documentary films?

Documentary film is way to reach a wider audience through storytelling and digital media art. Oral story telling is part of culture and how we share teachings and history. But since colonization we’ve been taught to not talk about our experiences, not be emotional, not to dwell on the past or leave things alone. Not talking is not healing or dealing, we need to create safe spaces to have a dialogue where listening, validating and meaningful healing takes place.  Digital media is a way to amplify the voices of those who wouldn’t normally be heard or seen in mainstream media. I’ve always preferred documentaries that are revealing with critical thought, truth baring but also showing the work or way to do the work that needs to be done to make things right. I’ve always believed that documentaries can be used in many ways besides truth telling but also for community building, understanding and of course, reconciliation.

How have you chosen to tackle methods of finance and distribution?

One of the biggest challenge is not knowing where to start and retaining control of how the story is told so that it is not white washed, or sanitized that might be required from working with people who do not center Indigenous . Not only am I making a documentary but it is a commitment to building trust and relationships with those who have joined in the effort of making the documentary, sharing their stories and trusting the process. It has also been a learning curve understanding realizing we are all in different stages of grief, loss and healing.

I’ve chosen to keep the documentary grassroots, funded carefully by grants and donations.  It has been a challenge because when people have asked to be involved, I have been guarded to make sure it stays true to the goal of being grassroots with Indigenous voices being amplified and told from an Indigenous perspective not through a settler’s interpretation.

As of right now, distribution is in the back of my mind. I want to make the documentary public and available, with subtitles and in French. I plan to host it on a website, and if there are donations they would be donated to initiatives for Indigenous adoptees who are doing grassroots organizing that includes healing, cultural knowledge and cultural education and or repatriation. The documentary needs to be included in any work that talks about reconciliation as a learning tool for community building, schools and institutions, especially anyone working front line with Indigenous people in health and social services.

What barriers have you faced during this project and what kind of support makes it possible?

The biggest barrier is my health, I live with Complex PTSD and a chronic pain disability that impedes my mobility along with compromised immune disease which flares break outs of psoriasis triggered by stress. Learning to manage my health and find balance has been a challenge, my second biggest challenge is learning the film making process on my own. Of course financing has been an on-going obstacle, funding the travel and equipment to get footage while connecting with the adoptees who have been impacted. Making sure adoptees feel safe, listened too and supporting through the sharing of their experiences.

What do you hope to accomplish with your film?

I hope to reach a national and international audience to expose the 60’ Scoop for the Canadians who do not know about it, but also the adoptees who may have been taken oversea and foster cared children who may be searching for a reason why it happened, find support, put a name to the unknown loss they might be experiencing and gain support.

Help other adoptees connect with other adoptees, build community with non-Indigenous people but most of all story-telling is healing, I think this has been a huge project that started out as a personal journey and turned into a movement of adoptees connecting from all over the world.

Tell us about your interests and influences in documentaries, television, media… What are you watching? Who’s inspiring you lately?

Alanis Obomsawin documentaries reeled me in, they were so revealing and showed the side of Indigenous realities that needed to be seen. Her films because my source of inspiration because they were so authentic using stories of Indigenous people affected by government policies. The late Gil Cardinal is also a source of inspiration, his documentaries were the first films I have seen that reflected images of other Indigenous children who experienced child welfare policies. I remember feeling like I wanted to know more and see more documentaries that were so profound.

Another one of my favourite documentaries is Survival, Strength, Sisterhood: Power of Women in the Downtown Eastside by filmmakers Alejandro Zuluaga and Harsha Walia which showed the real life strength and survival vs. victimhood of Indigenous women living and thriving in the downtown Eastside of Vancouver where hundreds of Indigenous women have been murdered, disappeared and othered because they use drugs, alcohol or sex work. Go Home Babygirl by Audrey Huntley which talks about one First Nation family’s struggle for justice and healing as they deal with having a young woman die a violent death.  Empire of Dirt by Jennifer Podemski, Rhymes of Young Ghouls and Drunktowns’ Finest are among the films that I can relate to the most when it comes to seeing Indigenous lives and realities reflected on the big screen. Each year there are more and more Indigenous film makers and documentaries exploring and delivering profound artistic mediums of cinematography, music, and dialogue about the most emotional, deep wounds that we are dealing with from. It makes my heart soar with pride for the resiliency and determination we as Indigenous people have to heal and move forward.

A Hidden Generation Poster by Colleen C

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