By Milène Ortenberg
As a filmmaker, the journey of storytelling goes far beyond what one sees through the lens. For Martha Stiegman, this meant going far beyond being a simple observer from the other side of her camera. After nearly four years of being immersed with the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, she transports us into the intimate portrait of a community where the strength of their solidarity, and the bonds she shares with them, tells a story that resonates long after the credits stop rolling.
For generations, the Mitchikanibikok Inik have inhabited the 10,000 square kilometres of serene landscape surrounding Barriere Lake, around three hours north of Ottawa. They are one of the few first nations in Canada to speak the Algonquin language, maintain their traditional land-based way of life, and govern themselves as their parents and grandparents did before them, without the intervention of a band council. This is a community with a remarkably strong sense of identity and respect for their ancestors.
A portion of their territory is now part of the LaVerendrye Faunic reserve, and is nestled in a rich land plentiful with forests, lakes and natural resources. However, tourism, logging and industry have penetrated the Algonquin’s sacred land, where companies profit over $100 million annually. The community has never seen a single cent of these massive profits.
Back in 1991, the Algonquins of Barrier lake signed a Trilateral Agreement with the Federal and provincial governments to opt for a co-existing approach, in an effort to reduce the friction between the community and industry. The agreement states that the Algonquins of Barriere Lake must be consulted on projects that would take place on their land, and that they could partake in the sharing of profits.
Having agreed and signed this landmark document, neither the Quebec government nor the federal representatives have honored this agreement. Logging and other industries still go on without them being consulted, and little by little their land on which their lives depend on is currently being destroyed.
For Stiegman, their plight has a familiar ring to it. She had encountered similar issues in her native province of Nova Scotia. But instead of logging, it was fishing.
In the Maritimes, fishing is a way of life for many native and non-native peoples. For indigenous communities, disputes on fishing rights have long been contested. It’s where Steigman first discovered the tangible tension between industry and native communities.
“Indigenous rights is kind of the bedrock issue that Canada has to deal with. The most important social justice issue of our time. [For me], Fishing was the arena where I saw these issues get played out.”
While doing her PhD she filmed United We Fish (2008), a documentary that encompasses the relationship between the Bear River first nations and the fishing industry in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. Not only did the bonds she forged with the local community change profoundly influence her, but also led her to realize just how Canadians like to deal with indigenous issues.
“There’s this veneer of democratic process and social justice that Canadians like to identify with, but underneath all of that, colonial power relations and the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples and the disconnect from the land, all that stuff marches on in ways that are sometimes even more vicious.”
Her connection with Barriere Lake came somewhat by chance in 2008, while she was teaching at the School for Community and Public Affairs. Some students asked to borrow her classroom to make a banner and when she was told it was to support the blockade of the 117 in a peaceful protest, she instinctively brought her camera and hopped on the bandwagon. What she saw would deeply transform and change her life.
Having previous experience with riot squads in other social justice movements, Stiegman states that the Barrier Lake blockade was something unprecedented. She claims that never had she seen young children and elders take to the front lines like they did, only to be tear-gassed and charged by riot cops.
“Witnessing that was profoundly moving and outraging. It reveals something very fundamental about the political fabric of this country and the political agenda of the state police. It’s hard to walk away from that and not feel a responsibility to address it in some way.”
The footage she shot during the blockade ended up in a short 10-minute video that went viral, and subsequently put Barriere Lake on the map of indigenous Canada. From then on, the bond between her and the community strengthened and flourished. She decided to pursue a mandate to document their struggle, and they were involved every step of the way.
Stiegman says that she stopped counting the number of times she made the trek up to Barrier Lake, and that she was more in contact with members of the community the her own friends back home. They took her in: she went hunting and fishing with them, lived under their roofs and ate at their dinner tables.
The closeness she developed with the Algonquins of Barriere Lake is what makes Honor your Word remarkable. As a documentarist, the intimate intensity of the moments you capture depends on the strength of your relationship with your subject. In Stiegman’s case, this couldn’t be more true: the connection she has with the community shines through from beginning to end. Her cinematic style lets the landscape and the people speak for themselves, allowing thoughtful pauses whose pacing allows the viewer to absorb the powerful significance of the issue at hand.
“Relationships are not a means towards an end. The project are the means towards the ends of building a relationship, it’s really just a question of letting your humanity show. I was never there just to make a movie. I was there because I found a profound sense of solidarity in their struggle. I was very compelled to find ways to support it.”
Stiegman was profoundly inspired by the tenacity and strong identity of the Algonquins of Barrier Lake, especially during the last summer of production when everything seemed to fall into place, not to mention she was pregnant during that time. The whirlwind of emotions is palpable during the film, on which Honor Your Word is focused on, and what makes the story so compelling. She says that other essay-like films that touch upon similar issues have a greater political lens, delving deeper into the logistics of the conflict. But for Steigman, it’s all about her own experience.
“What stuck with me were moments of inspiration and admiration which in turn with point out that audience member to seek out more information on these issues themselves. Its not details and information that people are going to retain it’s the emotional experience. That’s what I get out of documentary filmmaking”
The Canadian premiere for Honor your Word is screening at Cinema Politica with director Martha Stiegman in attendance on Monday February 10 at 7p.m..
Please visit http://www.cinemapolitica.org for more details
To learn more about the Algonquins of Barriere Lake visit http://www.barrierelakesolidarity.org