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Alanis Obomsawin turns lens to First Nations education rights

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TORONTO - There's an urgency to Alanis Obomsawin's politically charged work, so much so that the veteran filmmaker says she's had no choice but to take on five different projects more or less at the same time.

Each dealing with an aspect of First Nations life, the films chronicle desperate issues facing aboriginal people, says the internationally acclaimed activist, who has dedicated much of the past 40 years to documenting indigenous history.

Her latest is the education-focused documentary "Hi-Ho Mistahey!," which lands at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend. But any discussion of that film automatically bleeds into talk of other projects.

"There's so much work to be done," the 81-year-old says in a recent phone call from Ottawa, where she was gathering material for another child-focused film at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

"It's because of everything that's happening all over the country. The one that I did last year, 'The People of the Kattawapiskak River,' came out last October and now this one is coming out now and I would imagine I'll have the next one ready in another few months."

"Hi-Ho Mistahey!" explores the wide disparity between educational opportunities for First Nations communities and the rest of the country.

It centres on the children of Attawapiskat, who have been waiting for a school for more than 10 years.

The community's previous elementary school was closed in 2000 due to toxic land contamination. Ever since, students have been forced to learn in portables that have degraded substantially with each harsh northern winter. Today, the structures are rundown, drafty and infested with rodents, says Obomsawin.

"I was shocked," Obomsawin says of the conditions she found in the James Bay community.

"I go to a lot of reservations and I see the same kind of problems in a lot of communities. It also seemed to depend on how isolated they are from the cities where it looks like they're almost forgotten."

Interviews include New Democrat MP Charlie Angus, the representative for Timmins-James Bay, and the family and friends of student activist Shannen Koostachin, who died at age 15 in a car accident.

During her short life, Koostachin launched a massive youth-driven movement to secure safe and comfortable schools for on-reserve kids.

"It's not easy in any community," says Obomsawin, who has produced more than 30 documentaries on aboriginal rights issues for the National Film Board of Canada.

"Some of them are doing better than others but I think it's very hard on young people when they're growing up and they're teenagers and there's nothing to do. There's no really services to keep the young people busy and it's very difficult for the families."

Obomsawin says she began working on "Hi-Ho Mistahey!" more than two years ago but was sidelined by the notorious housing crisis that left some Attawapiskat residents without plumbing or electricity, living in tents and clapboard houses.

She put the education-focused film on hold to work on "The People of the Kattawapiskak River," which detailed the plight faced by the isolated Cree First Nation of about 1,200 people.

"That was very urgent to be made," she says of that NFB film. "I could see how down all the young people were feeling and there was a lot of bad publicity."

Obomsawin, whose landmark 1993 film "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance" traced the 1990 conflict between the Mohawk community and the army, marvels at the how politically potent the young people of Attawapiskat have become, in large part inspired by Koostachin's work.

After much public pressure, Obomsawin says construction of a new school is expected to be complete by September 2014.

"It's incredible," she says.

"They are the strongest young people. To hear them talk, I find they talk like old people of the past. And it's like a realization of their identity, all of a sudden they realize it and it's very important and very sacred. And they're changing, they're making a lot of changes all around the country."

Obomsawin is already looking ahead to her next film, which will be about treaty rights issues. She says she hopes it will be ready for release in about five or six months.

As far as she can see, there's no time to slow down.

"I've been working on five films, really, together," says Obomsawin.

"I'm doing everything I can while I can. I can't live forever. So I have all these projects. I'll finish them all, then I'll write a book and then I'll lie down. Not before."

The Toronto International Film Festival runs until Sept. 15.

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