Grand prize goes to Gabriel

Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel wanted her most recent documentary, Kanàtenhs – When The Pine Needles Fall, to make people listen to the story of the Siege of Kanehsatake from those who lived through it.

And listen they did, as last week Gabriel made history at the 38th annual Conseil des arts de Montréal awards, becoming the first-ever Indigenous artist to take home the prestigious Grand Prix.

“It’s a great honour. It’s a great privilege, and it’s a thrill,” Gabriel said. “I didn’t expect it. I didn’t even have a speech prepared because I didn’t think I’d win.

“I’m at a loss for words to say how important this is to me, and also how elated I am to receive this prize, because it’s a prestigious award and it’s a validation of the work I’ve been trying to do over these three decades.”

The ceremony, which saw Gabriel presented with a $30,000 grant to continue her work, took place at Montreal’s Palais des congrès last Thursday, and Gabriel was in attendance with fellow Kanehsata’kehró:non Clifton Ariwakehte Nicholas, who features in the documentary.

Nicholas said that he hopes that other filmmakers from Kanesatake and beyond will recognize the importance of stories being told by Indigenous people.

“We need to have our words out there. We need to have our stories out there, told through our lens, through our way of seeing things,” he said. “There are thousands of stories just from my community; can you imagine the other communities that have stories to tell? It’s inspirational for other Indigenous people that she won this award, particularly Indigenous women.”

ITALICSSTARTHEREKanàtenhs – When The Pine Needles FallITALICSENDHERE focuses on the women of Kanesatake and their role in the summer of 1990.

“For me, clarifying the role of women was really important to highlight, because so many brave and courageous women played a role in the resistance of that summer here in Kanesatake and in Kahnawake,” she said. “The role of the women is really important for me to highlight because we do still get marginalized in the resistance movements, and in the issues affecting our families and communities.

“It wasn’t just the brave men who protected the people, but also the brave women that fought so, so hard to keep our people safe that summer.”

The documentary, which is just over 20 minutes long, also features Arlette van den Hende, Ellen’s sister Mamie Gabriel, and Wanda Gabriel, alongside Nicholas. Together with Ellen, who was the official spokesperson during the resistance, the cast detail the experience of the Siege of Kanehsatake in a way never seen before.

“We come from a lived experience, one that’s genuine and authentic. It’s not a research team that went out and talked to a few people, our lived experience is coming from the heart,” said Wanda, who said she was filled with pride to hear that Ellen had won the Grand Prix. “I feel that’s much more meaningful, and people can relate more knowing it’s our spirit, it’s the heart of our people, the strength of our people.”

The Conseil des arts de Montréal said Ellen’s film made a mark on its panel of judges.

“Innovation, uniqueness, and authenticity. The will to act, the desire to make an impact, and the originality of the means used to reach out to the community: these were the criteria that guided the jury in determining the artist to be awarded the 38th Grand Prix,” said Nathalie Maillé, executive director of the Conseil des arts de Montréal, who commended Ellen’s branching into documentary filmmaking, which is a newer medium for her.

“Driven by an irrepressible quest for truth to pass on to new generations, our prizewinner has had the audacity to explore a new medium for the very first time, that of documentary, crowning 35 years of activism and artistic practice.”

Wanda said she hopes Ellen’s win is a catalyst for other inspired Kanien’kehá:ka filmmakers.

“It’s about freakin’ time! It’s time we have somebody from the community telling the story, and there’s many more stories to be told, I think,” she said. “For so long the story of Indigenous people has been told by white people, and it’s time we reclaim our voice in storytelling about who we are, where we come from, and the challenges and triumphs we have.”

Though being presented with the award in front of nearly 800 of the industry’s most impactful artists and leaders was special, what moved Ellen the most was being able to share the moment with the rest of the cast and team.

“To all the four people who gave me their stories, I hope I honoured them and the team who made this possible. I’m really grateful for it,” she said. “It goes to show what I say about surrounding yourself with people who care, and they did.”

Eve Cable, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door