New Alanis Obomsawin doc traces fight for equality in children’s services inspired by Manitoba boy

A film documenting the short life of a Cree child from Manitoba and the impact he has had on the lives of Indigenous children across the country is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday. 

Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger is the 53rd documentary by acclaimed Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin.

When Jordan River Anderson was born, he suffered from a rare muscle disorder. He was in the hospital for all five years of his life while the federal and provincial governments argued over who would pay for his home care.

He was never able to talk or walk and was kept on a ventilator until he died at Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, almost 1,000 km away from his family’s home in Norway House First Nation. 

His name is now on a policy that is meant to ensure that First Nations children living on and off reserve receive timely access to government-funded health, social and educational services. 

In 2007, Parliament passed a motion supporting Jordan’s Principle, although it would take a decade and several non-compliance orders issued by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to see the principle properly implemented. 

“If you fight long enough [and] you believe in something and it’s right, you win,” said Obomsawin, who began documenting the court proceedings in 2011. 

The film has footage of Jordan and interviews with the many people he touched, as well as the court proceedings and their impacts.

“I think that he’s a very strong messenger because it’s because of him that all the changes are coming,” Obomsawin said. 

Seeing a shift

This is the seventh film that completes a collection devoted to the rights of Indigenous people, often children, that began with The People of the Kattawapiskak River (2012). That film explored the conditions at Attawapiskat, Ont., which declared a state of emergency because of health and safety concerns over lack of housing and infrastructure. 

‘I think that he’s a very strong messenger,’ Alanis Obomsawin says of Jordan River Anderson, because of the changes he inspired. (Jean-François Villeneuve)

Obomsawin, 87, said she has always been inspired by children.

Through the 1960s she would visit classrooms across the country to teach and sing for children, this included a number of residential schools. 

“In those days I was a very young person and I’m wondering what could I do,” Obomsawin said. 

“I thought the children have to hear another story. That’s the only way I could come up with something perhaps that could influence a change, and I think I did.”

She said that in 52 years of making films, she believes that there has been a real shift in Canada and the way Indigenous people are treated, and seeing Jordan’s Principle fully in place is evidence of this. 

“I find that Canadians in general want to see justice for our people.”

Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger premieres Tuesday night and has two more public screenings.