Ten years is a long time to put up with a cycle of broken promises, but the Northern Ontario First Nations community of Attawapiskat has had to put up with that, when the one thing the area needs is something that should be a basic human right. In famed filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s latest documentary Hi-Ho Mistahey!, the memory of a young female activist lives on in the desire to simply bring a new school to a town that has been housing its children in freezing cold and outdated portables for a decade. It’s a trenchant and admirably rabble-rousing look at how the Canadian government has once again failed those most desperately in need.
After the town’s elementary school was irreparably damaged and unhealthy to be around following an oil spill, Attawapiskat (a place so secluded that one would have to take a several hundred dollar plane ride just to get to the nearest major town on Timmins) finds itself in an even worse financial hole. Despite being home to a diamond mine that produces $2 billion a year in revenue, the community only receives $400,000 a year that can only be placed into a trust fund for administrative costs and nothing else. There’s largely been silence from parliamentarians (who often never bother to visit) since 2004. The school flat out can’t afford even the simplest of science programs and often has to find ways of educating students for less than a quarter of what kids in other communities receive from the government. It’s such a terrible situation that it’s often advisable to move gifted students away from the community that can best use their ideas and into schools away from their families so they can have a chance at better lives instead of a system where kids will start dropping out as early as Grade 4.
While the look at the hardship faced by the children of Attawapiskat is certainly incendiary and eye opening, there remains hope in the form of the organization Shannen’s Dream, Obomsawin’s main focus. The brainchild of the late teenager Shannen Kostachin, who tragically passed away in a June 2010 car accident, the group seeks to lobby the government to create a new place for the community where students can be made to feel important and worthy and to lobby for easy access to education for all First Nations areas. It’s a collective made up of students and citizens who in many cases are often brought to tears thinking of how much better their lives can be. Obomsawin follows them as they go to schools, political events, and even the UN discussion on the rights of the child to plead their case.
Not only focusing on the plight of the children directly, Obomsawin makes time to look at the larger picture of Attawapiskat, looking at how Shannen’s family copes with the loss of their daughter and how they are keeping her legacy alive. She looks at how Shannen’s best friend Serena feels sometimes exhausted and emotionally drained by everything that’s already happened in her young life. The apathy of big business and government is touched on, as well as the spectre of early 1900s Catholicism being brought to the region. It all paints a rich picture of a place in desperate need of human compassion and the resources to allow healing to begin, but it’s more importantly a valuable document when talking about how education helps with physical and mental health for students by nurturing the talents of the young and giving them confidence. Hi-Ho Mistahey! ultimately leads to some optimistic places, but Obomsawin makes it clear there’s plenty of work still needed to be done.