York filmmakers support advocacy efforts of students in Attawapiskat First Nation

Students in Attawapiskat First Nation are increasing their capacity for advocacy and self-expression with the support of York’s Department of Film. Graduate student Victoria Lean and her thesis supervisor, film Professor Ali Kazimi, recently coordinated a video equipment donation and skills workshops for the two schools in the remote, fly-in Cree community in northern Ontario.

For Kazimi, it all started two years ago when he learned about the situation of students in Attawapiskat from Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Service Caring Society of Canada. Blackstock was awarded the Atkinson Foundation’s prestigious Economic Justice Fellowship for her advocacy work. She brought students from Attawapiskat to speak at the award ceremony in Toronto in November 2009.

“Though Attawapiskat had been promised a new school for a number of years, the condition those students were studying in would shock Canadians,” said Kazimi. “I was deeply moved by the resolve of the students and their ability to use social media to raise awareness of their cause. Using limited resources, the students had mounted an effective video-based campaign on the Internet. I started thinking about how we could help develop and support their ability to use video as an advocacy tool.”

Film Professor Ali Kazimi and graduate student Victoria Lean stand with the equipment donated to students in the Attawapiskat First Nation Right: Film Professor Ali Kazimi and graduate student Victoria Lean stand with the equipment donated to students in the Attawapiskat First Nation 

By 2009, York’s Department of Film had completed its transition to high definition production and had phased out its standard definition cameras. Kazimi was convinced that in the hands of Attawapiskat youth, the still-functional standard definition equipment, combined with production workshops, would help them to share their stories and continue their advocacy for change.

Working with Bill Byers, the film department’s studio manager, Kazimi facilitated the donation to Attawapiskat of four video cameras, two video editing workstations, two tripods and sound equipment.

Meanwhile, Lean came to York to pursue her MFA in film, with a plan to shoot her thesis production in Attawapiskat. She asked Kazimi to be her graduate supervisor because of his experience working in social documentary and making films on Aboriginal issues. It was a surprise when they realized their interests converged on the same Cree community.

“It was definitely serendipitous that Ali was already planning this donation”, said Lean, who has a longstanding interest in Aboriginal youth and video. Prior to attending York, she co-authored a report commissioned by the Government of Nunavut about film and television production within the territory, which included a section on the importance of video workshops in terms of youth engagement, suicide prevention and language retention.

Lean gradually took over from Kazimi in facilitating the equipment donation. She also went to the Toronto film community to solicit DV tapes, which were provided by Henry’s (a national camera and video equipment retail chain) and for computer monitors, which were supplied by her friends in the industry.

Working with school officials, Lean arranged for the equipment to be shared between JR Nakogee Elementary School and Vezina Secondary School in Attawapiskat. She also recruited former York film student Kirk Holmes, who is serving as cinematographer for her thesis production, to help her plan and conduct workshops for the students on how to make and edit videos.

Last month, Lean and Holmes transported more than 150 pounds of equipment over 1,000 km from Toronto to Attawapiskat. The three-day journey was supported by Ontario Northland and Thunder Air, who pitched in train and plane tickets respectively and covered what would have been an expensive freight bill.

 Lean hauls more than 150 pounds of equipment to the loading area for transport on the Ontario Northlander train to Attawapiskat Right: Lean hauls more than 150 pounds of equipment to the loading area for transport on the Ontario Northlander train to Attawapiskat 

In Attawapiskat, Lean and Holmes led three-hour workshops daily from June 6 to 8. The sessions, held after school during the students’ free time, were a great success, with some 20 young people from grade six and up taking part.

“They were really engaged, extremely careful with the equipment and eager to learn and participate”, said Lean. “The highlight for me was when they started brainstorming about what they wanted to shoot and started directing on their own. Eventually, it felt like I was really just there to help with the technical side as they took charge of their own films.”

It was a remarkable experience, giving back to an appreciative group of youth in need of support.

Lean was visiting Attawapiskat in 2010 when Shannen Koostachin, a local 15-year-old student activist, died in a car crash. The advocacy work Koostachin and other students had been doing with the support of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society now has a campaign under the name of Shannen’s Dream, which advocates for “safe and comfy schools and culturally equitable education for all First Nations children and youth.”

Kirk Holmes teaches students how to use the equipmentRight: Kirk Holmes teaches students how to use the equipment

The organization works to raise awareness about the differences between schools which are funded by the province and schools on First Nations reserves which are supported federally. It estimates a funding deficit of $2,000 to $3,000 per Aboriginal student per year. Health concerns in First Nations schools include overcrowding, extreme mould, high carbon dioxide levels, sewage or gas fumes, frozen pipes, unheated portables and students suffering from cold and frost bite.

“I find the difference appalling between my school experience, growing up in Southern Ontario, compared to the lack of services and support for reserve children,” said Lean. “Even though I’ve spent time in Aboriginal communities, I’m still taken aback when I hear about a school not having a library, playground, gym or science lab. Planning for a new elementary school in Attawapiskat is now finally on the government’s agenda, but I’m sure it would not have been without the advocacy efforts of Shannen and her peers.”

Student practise their video-making skills in the outdoorsLeft: Student practise their video-making skills

Lean is pleased to have the opportunity to support that work. “From the beginning, I wanted to give back to the community of Attawapiskat and share my skills because I truly believe that film and video provides Aboriginal youth with a powerful outlet to express themselves,” she said. “Ali and York’s Department of Film came in with the equipment required to make it all actually happen.”