Documentary reveals bitter reality of Jordan’s Principle

Norway House boy's short life led to reform that's still a work in progress


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Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin began making films in the 1960s at a time when there were few Indigenous filmmakers working in the industry.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/08/2020 (1010 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin began making films in the 1960s at a time when there were few Indigenous filmmakers working in the industry.

The North American filmmaking landscape has changed dramatically since then with regards to diversity, thanks in large part to Obomsawin’s tireless commitment to activism through film.

Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger — which makes its streaming debut on Monday, Obomsawin’s 88th birthday — marks her 53rd film and tells another story of Indigenous resilience and resistance in the face of colonization.

The 65-minute documentary, which was named the best Canadian documentary at the 2019 Vancouver International Film Festival and is being streamed by the National Film Board, explores the life of Jordan River Anderson, a boy from Norway House Cree Nation who was diagnosed at birth in 1999 with a rare muscular disorder known as Carey Fineman Ziter Syndrome.

Complications during pregnancy meant Jordan’s mother, Virginia, was flown to Winnipeg to give birth, and Winnipeg is where Jordan spent his entire life, away from his siblings, his father and his home community.

Jordan required constant care owing to disabilities associated with his disorder. He has facial paralysis and needed to be fed through a feeding tube and doctors granted permission for two-year-old Jordan to move into a nearby home where that care could be provided.

However, because Jordan was Indigenous, the provincial and federal governments could not agree on who was responsible for paying for the cost of his home care. This dispute lasted until Jordan’s death in 2005, when he was five.

He died in hospital, having never had the experience of living in a home and never having visited his community of Norway House.

Norway House Cree Nation (NFB)

Jordan’s Principle was created following his death. The child-first, needs-based regulation that the House of Commons approved in 2007 was meant to ensure equitable access for First Nations and Inuit people to government-funded public services. It also says access to services should not be denied while governments determine how costs will be paid.

But the ideal of Jordan’s Principle hasn’t always matched the reality of what Indigenous and Inuit people have experienced, with many of them still experiencing denials of service.

Obomsawin also documents this battle through interviews with multiple families as they fight for the right to access the same standard of social, health and educational services that are given to other Canadians. She supports this with footage of court hearings related to the fight for equality and justice that Jordan’s legacy has continued to inspire.

Obomsawin’s documentary is at its best when sharing the human stories at the heart of the film while the footage of men in suits arguing in court, while expositing valuable information, proves tiresome. Real-life court is rarely as exciting as the way it’s portrayed in cinema.

The footage of the land is especially touching, showing the distinct environmental separation between the two locations where the Anderson family lived and where Jordan spent his short life.

NFB Jordan’s Principle was developed to ensure Indigenous people like Noah Buffalo Jackson receive the same government services as all Canadians.

The rivers, lakes, rocks, trees — and a hilariously enthusiastic black bear sighting (if you ever lived on the rez, you know what this is like) — of Norway House Cree Nation encapsulate so much of the beauty of Indigenous ways of life, ways of being and ways of knowing.

It feels like home, and like a place where Jordan deserved to be but never had the chance to see.

At 65 minutes, the documentary also feels too short, leaving a lingering desire to learn more about these families, their stories and the community of Norway House Cree Nation itself.

But even with these few flaws, the film is profoundly moving.

Indigenous audiences, many of whom have encountered similar experiences in accessing health care and social services, will undoubtedly feel uplifted and inspired by the incredible work being done in Jordan’s name, and, in turn, justice for all Indigenous and Inuit people.

NFB Noah Buffalo-Jackson and his mother, Carolyn Buffalo. She fought the federal government to enforce Jordan's Principle so Noah can attend the same school as his siblings.

For non-Indigenous viewers, the film may well be one of the first genuine glimpses into the inequities faced by Indigenous people living in the country currently called Canada.

Twitter: @FrancesKoncan

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NFB Senator Daniel Christmas, who is from the Mi'kmaw First Nation in Nova Scotia, and his daughter Gail.
Frances Koncan

Frances Koncan
Arts reporter

Frances Koncan (she/her) is a writer, theatre director, and failed musician of mixed Anishinaabe and Slovene descent. Originally from Couchiching First Nation, she is now based in Treaty 1 Territory right here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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