Glenn Gould Prize winner Alanis Obomsawin strikes tone of hope for Indigenous future

·3 min read

TORONTO — Alanis Obomsawin shared hope for the future of Indigenous Peoples as she accepted the Glenn Gould Prize on Monday for her lifetime contribution to the arts.

Nearly one year after the 89-year-old documentary filmmaker was named by an international jury of her peers, she appeared at an in-person ceremony for the $100,000 honour.

"I feel so much love everywhere, so much respect," she said in a speech that focused on progress towards a greater understanding of Indigenous lives.

"Contrary to 20 years ago, even up to 10 years ago, whenever there was a showing of injustice ... it was a bother for most Canadians. Now I see, we're in 2021, people are caring. They want to hear. They want to see justice to our people."

"I am so comforted by the attitude and the change that Canadians, in general, feel towards our people. This is a very, very different time," she added in the speech that was streamed online from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

"It's more profound than hope, what I feel."

Obomsawin, a member of the Abenaki Nation, was recognized for her dedication to chronicling the lives and concerns of First Nations people for more than half a century. Her work includes landmark documentaries that shed light on various Indigenous issues.

Two of her most notable films put stories on the record in vivid detail. "Incident at Restigouche" captured the police raids on the Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation in 1981, while "Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance," brought viewers closer to the 1990 Oka Crisis.

Established in 1987, the Glenn Gould Prize is awarded every other year and named after the acclaimed Canadian piano virtuoso who died in 1982 at age 50. Past recipients include late U.S. opera singer Jessye Norman, U.S. composer Philip Glass, Canadian theatre icon Robert Lepage and late Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Laurie Anderson, the Grammy-winning musician and U.S. visual artist, was the chairwoman of this year's international jury, which included Indian pianist Surojeet Chatterji, U.K. author Neil Gaiman, French designer Philippe Starck and Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany.

Throughout her speech, Obomsawin drew connections to future generations, saying "there’s nothing more precious or special than children" and that she's always felt changes in the educational system were one important pathway to reaching them.

"Children are not born racist; they learn those feelings from adults," she said.

"I always knew the children had to hear another story.... I really, really believed that somehow if I could get to the classroom, maybe I could influence something else. And it did happen."

As part of the prize, Obomsawin was able to select a young artist to receive the $15,000 City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize. She chose Ojibwe filmmaker Victoria Anderson-Gardner, whose project "Becoming Nakuset," won best short film and the audience award at the 2020 ImagineNative film festival.

Obomsawin closed her speech by addressing Indigenous youth and their future.

"You look in the mirror and you began to believe what people say you are. That's all over. We're going someplace where we've never been before," she said.

"All our beautiful people. They never knew how beautiful they were and I want to keep reminding them until I go."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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