For Love 2022

Interview: Mary Teegee on FOR LOVE

“It’s up to Canadians to demand better. Now you know, so do better,” Mary Teegee says. “Demand your politicians ensure that there’s substantive equity for all children, not just Indigenous children. All children should be able to live up to their full potential.”

Teegee is Gitk’san and Carrier from the Takla Lake First Nation, and is currently the Executive Director of Child and Family Services at Carrier Sekani Family Services, which offers programs to support young Indigenous people and families. A tireless advocate for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, Teegee produced the 2015 documentary Highway of Tears, directed by Matt Smiley, about the numerous unsolved cases and the systemic racism influencing the investigation.

Smiley and Teegee collaborated once again to develop For Love, a documentary exploring the heinous abuses Indigenous children experienced at the hand of Canada’s child welfare system, drawing ties to Canada’s residential school history. For Love is also a beautiful story of what is being done for Indigenous children today and how the younger generation is reclaiming their heritage and engaging with their culture with the utmost pride.

That Shelf had the chance to speak with Teegee who was instrumental in passing Bill C-92 (An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families) in 2019 giving Indigenous communities jurisdiction over their own family and child services. We spoke about the legislation and the impact that it has already had on Indigenous communities across Canada and how she hopes the film will influence Canadians.

For Love premiered last year on Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and was released on Netflix this year in time for this important day.

Let’s start from the end. Granted 3 years is a small sample size, how have you seen Bill C-92 (An Act respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, youth and families) actually change and help Indigenous communities so far?

MT: There’s only a few nations that actually have their own jurisdiction. Granted, it’s federal enabling legislation, so it’s not the full sovereignty, not the full self government. But it does allow us to make decisions. Jurisdiction in its simplest form is just our ability to make decisions. So in this case, it’s making those decisions for our children and families. It’s not only C-92 that has made any type of change in our community, it is really the amount of funding that we now receive for prevention. Canada was court ordered to pay prevention and actuals in 2016/2017, which meant that there could be now prevention services on reserve, where before there was no funding relief or limited funding.

We’ve always had the inherent right and inherent jurisdiction to take care of our children, [but] what we don’t have are the resources to breathe life into our own lives, and that’s fundamentally important. Now, we’re able to fund, say, a young mother who is vulnerable and may not have rent or is running out of food, and she’s got two or three kids. We’re able to help her with that. That’s hugely important, because one of the biggest reasons for children going into care is neglect, which is really just another way of expressing the issues of poverty. So there has been some changes, whether or not that’s from C-92, it is too early to tell, but definitely there’s change. The shift to more preventative work that is based in in culture has been really significant.

Has there been an intangible shift as well? Maybe not one that’s felt on the ground level but perhaps from those of you who are in positions of influence, has the passing of C-92 influenced, and maybe even encouraged you?

MT: Oh, absolutely. This fight to get our own jurisdiction has been generations in the making. Being in leadership, it was really important for us to be self-governing or self-determining. And this is the most important step, because now we are self determining self governing within child and family [services] and children are our most important resource. There has been the fight of course, for forestry, land, water, mining, all of these things. There has been that fight for us to protect all of those things like all of the minerals, water, everything. However, the fight for our most important resource, our children, has really become stronger in the last few years. Leaders are speaking out and the media. So I do believe there has been a shift for us, that’s also felt on the ground. On the ground, people are feeling hopeful. That’s what our film was meant to do, was to give people hope.

Great segway to actually talk about the film. You worked with Matt Smiley again after having done Highway of Tears together. I found it interesting that you specifically wanted a non-Indigenous director so he could keep a check on what was common knowledge to you that outsiders wouldn’t know. What has seeing the issues through a non-Indigenous person added to For Love?

MT: First of all, I can’t say enough about Matt. He is my brother from another mother. It meant so much for me to hear, Matt. Matt’s very sensitive, I always say he’s got an Indian heart, because he feels things so deeply. He is so my brother — he is Indigenous for all intents and purposes. It really resonated with him what was happening, the inequity, and what’s happening to our environment, the lack of water, all of these different things. It was a really good collaboration and Matt knew the spirit of the movie that we were trying to make and understood what I wanted: to show all the things that happened through the resilience and the beauty of our culture. And I think he really did that well.

There is a big tonal shift between Highway of Tears and For Love. Highway of Tears is very dark and almost has an exasperated feel to it, whereas For Love is very optimistic and hopeful. Was the shift between the two films reflective of something that changed within you or a change you saw in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous communities?

MT: It’s funny I was actually just talking about this the other day with some friends of mine. You definitely could feel like there was a little bit of hope at the very end of Highway of Tears, when we no longer had to have the missing murdered women posters. When we no longer have to talk about it, that’s the day that I worked towards. And it’s still happening, I’m still doing the work. We’re going to be rolling out a national toolkit for missing murdered women and implementing the calls for justice. I’m still hoping that there’s going to be an Act to end violence against Indigenous women similar to what they have in the United States, the Violence Against Women Act. So there’s still a lot of work to do, but there definitely has been steps forward. There was the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the calls for justice. So I do believe there’s a shift in my mind, but also I do believe there is a shift in Canada.

One part of the film I really loved was seeing the two young girls throat singing. I loved seeing a younger generation taking interest in the culture and being proud of it. Why was it important to showcase Indigenous culture specifically from the perspective of children?

MT: Because our culture is the foundation of our healing. Our culture has to be the foundation of any preventative services. This film is a message to our children in care now, the former children in care and to our parents, that what happened to them is not their fault. That they have a right to their culture, to show that our culture is beautiful and to instill pride. If one young person watches this, that may not have a connection to home, and then looks up and says, “I’m Indigenous and I’m proud to be,” we’ve done our job in this movie. It’s really a message of love and hope for those children. So of course, we wanted to show a lot of children to show our culture is not dead. We’re still here, we’re still thriving, we still have our culture, we still have our languages, we’re not going anywhere.

For Love premiered last year in BC on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. What does this day mean to you and how important was it for you to have the film premiere on that day?

MT: It was so important. It was the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which was amazing in and of itself. But then to be able to premiere it here in my home province meant so much to me. We wanted to tell the story, because to reconcile—okay first of all, I don’t really like the word. I don’t like the word ‘reconciliation’, because there is a presumption that there was actually a good, respectful, balanced relationship at one point. We’ve never had that with Canada. The right phrase would be ‘building a relationship’. That’s what we’re doing right now. So when you change your mind to that thought, we’re not reconciling anything. We’re building a conciliatory relationship. And how do we do that? First of all, it’s to understand each other and with understanding comes trust and respect.

I think that the day in and of itself is a good day for Canadian citizens to actually sit down and reflect on what do they know about our Indigenous culture. All people across Canada live close to a community, we’re everywhere, so take the time to understand their culture. In order to move ahead, you have to know where you’ve been. And as a country, Canadian citizens need to know the atrocities of the history of Indigenous people. That what this country was built on was the blood of our people, was the tears of our people, on the backs of our people. It was built on a premise of cultural genocide. That’s really important for Canadians to understand.

A day like this is particularly important for people like myself who come from immigrant families. Yes, our people “didn’t do anything” but we have greatly benefited from colonialism, too.

MT: I really appreciate that you’re saying that, most people don’t. About 20 years ago, we were at a fundraising gala for multiculturalism in North Vancouver. The money was going to help immigrant and Indigenous children go to university. We had charged quite a bit per plate, so for the most part, it was big time forestry people, big companies, very wealthy, and in many cases, very racist. One of our elders, the late Chief Leonard George was speaking, and some big time contractor put up his hand and said, “Why should I pay that? I didn’t do that, it wasn’t my history.” Chief Leonard says, “So you’re asking, why you should pay for the sins of your father. Maybe the better question is, why should you benefit from the sins of your father?”

What do you think about Canada as it exists today?

MT: That’s quite a big question. I have my love hate relationship [with Canada]. I don’t consider myself a Canadian, I don’t stand for O Canada, and never have. I don’t celebrate Canada Day, because where I’m from, our rights are still not recognized. We still don’t have say over our land, trees, water, all of that. Until that changes maybe I’ll have a newfound respect for Canada.

When I go to other countries in the world, I see the poverty as well, so I’m fortunate that Canada is here. I acknowledge all the ones that came before us, the wars and everything that they engaged in. But at the end of the day for me, I have my rightful role as a hereditary chief, a role much like the Queen and the monarchy. We have our roles that needs to be respected as well within the laws.

There’s got to be respect for our rights as territory holders. This is our territory and we need to be able to make the decisions about what’s going to happen to our environment, because we don’t separate ourselves from the land. We are the land, we are the environment, and what you do to the land and environment, you do to us. So Canada really needs to step back and empower [Indigenous people] to be able to take care of our resources, to be able to be self-determining and do it in a good way.

At this point, though, there’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of reparations that Canada needs to make to our Indigenous people. And I think that the proper ‘re’ word that we should be concentrating on is not necessarily reconciliation. Like I said, we need to build a conciliatory relationship, and how do we do that? You look at what happens in countries where there have been genocidal war, they’ve had to make reparations. Canada needs to do the same in a big way.

For Love is streaming now on Netflix Canada.