Scene from nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up.

by Josh Hawley

“Is there a Cree word for ‘justice’?” Tasha Hubbard’s 10-year-old son asks his grandfather in Hubbard’s latest documentary, nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up. Eeyou relationships are built around treating each other right, the grandfather says, and this is what the language reflects. There was never a need for Cree people to seek ‘justice.’ But colonialism changed all that.

The search for justice in a society built on colonial violence, racism, and the privatization of land is at the centre of We Will Stand Up, a moving account of the aftermath of the 2016 killing of 22-year-old Colton Boushie. The shooting of Boushie, an Indigenous man from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, by white farmer Gerald Stanley dredged up the genocidal substratum of Canadian colonialism, sending waves around the country.

The film was screened at the University of Ottawa on Jan. 13, as part of the Seeing Red Film Series organized by the University of Ottawa Indigenous Legal Traditions Committee and the Indigenous Law Students Association.

“Is there a Cree word for ‘justice’?”

Writer and director Tasha Hubbard was in attendance for a discussion after the screening with law professor Tracey Lindberg. Lindberg, a member of the As’in’i’wa’chi Ni’yaw Nation Rocky Mountain Cree whose research involves preserving and translating traditional Indigenous law, also has a close connection to Saskatchewan. She studied law at the University of Saskatchewan and at one point practiced law with Gerald Stanley’s defence lawyer, Scott Spencer.

The documentary skillfully weaves multiple narratives together. Director Tasha Hubbard brings in her own personal story of adoption into a white family and her family connections with Boushie’s family. Animated segments relate Boushie’s death to the 1885 hanging of eight Indigenous warriors following the North-West Rebellion.

During the post-screening discussion, Lindberg asked Hubbard about her decision to include these oral and visual histories.

“Time is not linear. The historical moments fold into the now,” Hubbard said. This understanding is present throughout nîpawistamâsowin. The documentary is a journey for all generations, each one teaching and learning from the others. In many ways, the film acts as a love letter to Hubbard’s son, nephew, and all young warriors.

Boushie’s killing is profoundly significant, but it is not an isolated case and Hubbard’s film puts it in historical context. She puts on the screen what Gina Starblanket and Dallas Hunt outlined in their 2018 Globe and Mail opinion piece “How the death of Colten Boushie became recast as the story of a knight protecting his castle.”

As Starblanket and Hunt put it, “Indigenous removal and erasure aren’t just historical events; rather, our attempted eradication has to be actively carried out in perpetuity.” In line with this, one of the strong points of the film is the way it shows the system was stacked against Boushie and his family before he was even struck by Stanley’s bullet. 

After Boushie was killed, the RCMP issued a press release around 20 hours later on Aug. 10, 2016. They buried Boushie’s death, rather than leading with it. The release begins with “five individuals entered onto private property.” An unnamed person’s death is only referenced at the end of the second paragraph.

As Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron put it, “The news release the RCMP issued the following day provided just enough prejudicial information for the average reader to draw their own conclusions that the shooting was somehow justified. The messaging in an RCMP news release should not fuel racial tensions.”

The film also shows the struggle between an internalized trust of legal and political systems and the awareness that these systems are the operational organs of colonial power. This is most apparent when we see Sheldon Wuttunee, the former elected chief of Boushie’s band council Red Pheasant Cree Nation, tout the line — once Stanley was on trial — that trusting in a fair and reasoned legal process is the most responsible way to move forward. Later in the film, Wuttunee’s faith in the state wanes and we begin to see him questioning that authority.

nîpawistamâsowin is the third of Hubbard’s feature documentaries produced by the National Film Board. Two Worlds Colliding (2004) exposed the “starlight tours,” where Saskatchewan police would abandon arrested Indigenous people in isolated locations in freezing weather. Birth of a Family (2016) documented the reunion of four Dene siblings taken and adopted out during the Sixties Scoop.

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up has been receiving accolades and awards on the festival circuit. Last April, the film opened Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in so-called North America, and went on to win the festival’s Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award. The film also picked up the Colin Low Award for Canadian Documentary at DOXA, the largest doc fest in Western so-called Canada.

In October, the film picked up another handful of awards. At the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, the film won both the Sun Jury Award and Audience Choice Award for Best Feature, and the Directors Guild of Canada awarded Hubbard with the Discovery Award.

A 44-minute cut of nîpawistamâsowin will air on CBC Docs POV on Feb. 23. This summer, the full-length version will be available on APTN.

The film was screened at the University of Ottawa on Jan. 13, as part of the Seeing Red Film Series organized by the University of Ottawa Indigenous Legal Traditions Committee and the Indigenous Law Students Association. The next and final film in the Seeing Red Film Series is Sheila North’s 1200+, a documentary about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, on Wednesday, Jan. 22.

Meanwhile, on Feb. 9, there will be a day of action marking the two-year anniversary of the verdict on Colton Boushie’s killing.

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