TIFF Review: 'We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice'

We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice
(Canada, 163 min.)
Written and directed by Alanis Obomsawin
Programme: Masters (World Premiere)
Courtesy of TIFF

Alanis Obomsawin puts Canada on trial in her vital doc We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice. This ambitious film-- nine years in the making--is one of the gutsiest works in Obomsawin’s brave career. The doc chronicles a landmark case in which social workers advocate that Indigenous children on reserves deserve the same rights and medical care that young Canadians receive around the country. The legal arguments that Obomsawin presents are truly disconcerting, particularly once a shrewd bit of editing brings the darkest chapter of Canada's past into the open for an overdue conversation.

That discussion, of course,  is Canada's history of Residential Schools in which the Canadian government sponsored Catholic schools to 'educate' Indigenous children and transform them, as one witness of the film so eloquently puts it, from a 'prairie male partridge' into a 'normal' (re: westernised) citizen. We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice carries the underlying message that gross human rights violations persist because the Canadian government has historically neglected to see Indigenous persons as real Canadians and fails to do so even today. The case faces numerous setbacks, too, as delays and stalling from the Crown halt the case temporarily, like a plastic fork wedged underneath a faulty ceiling to impede its inevitable collapse if only for a few face-saving seconds.

The hero of the film is Cindy Blackstock, a courageous social worker devoted to serving and protecting Canada's children. Blackstock is an admirable figure and her articulate arguments position the film within rational frameworks that Canada needs to do the right thing and protect its children. Her perseverance with the case is inspiring as she finds herself under surveillance by the government and dogged by setbacks in the proceedings. Obomsawin’s portrait ensures that Blackstock never overwhelms the case, but the subject would agree that the rights of the children are of primary importance.

Obomsawin faces the unenviable task of sifting through nine years of testimony, but with some commendable help from editor Alison Burns, she brings to life a film that is both compelling and illuminating. Where one even begins to decide which voices remain in the picture when so few are privileged to speak on this matter is a daunting task, and We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice honours its subjects by affording them many opportunities to be a part of the conversation. The film is surprisingly dynamic for a film comprised mostly of interviews and witness testimony.

The courts eventually hear the testimony of activist groups and members of the Indigenous community. They discuss inadequacies in health care and debate situations that meet the criteria for action under “Jordan’s Principle,” an act passed unanimously in the House of Commons that sets out standards for medical care for children on reserves. The side of the petitioners has strong merit, while witnesses from the Canadian government offer persuasive evidence of bureaucratic complacency and laziness. The Crown’s arguments hold little sway and ultimately seek out legal loopholes out of desperation. Prepare to shake your heads at our tax dollars put to waste.

Obomsawin also gives time to witnesses who don’t get their moment in court. Interviews with residents of Indigenous reserves show a child with special needs and the devoted mother who cares for him. She obviously doesn’t receive the same benefits that a family in, say, Toronto would garner. Obomsawin interjects infrequently with her observant and soft-spoken voiceover. One doesn’t even need to narrate the obvious: why does Canada put so much effort into restricting care for its future? The cost of fighting adequate care for children on reserves surely amounts to higher costs in legal fees, overtime, and settlements.

While We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice is exhausting in its measured procedure, Obomsawin gradually gets to the heart of the case and the issue that the Crown is avoiding with its setbacks and delays. When the case raises the question of Residential Schools and evokes the history of Canada’s neglect for Indigenous children, and overall ignorance to their rights, the film puts into the open history and evidence that Canadians rarely acknowledge. Stories of physical, emotional, sexual, and psychological abuse arise in emotional and cathartic testimony from survivors.

It’s in this act of the case that Obomsawin shows the work of a master. We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice cuts between the testimony of one survivor and one scholar, who illustrate two essential and complementary aspects of Canada’s history with Residential Schools. These interviews play off one another as a dialogue as Obomsawin opens a conversation and juxtaposes the present case with history. The film argues that the cultural genocide of the Residential Schools haunts the neglect of Indigenous children as kids die while the government fails them.

The film is especially provocative thanks to Obomsawin’s commitment to the story as she sticks with Blackstock and the case throughout its journey. The longevity of the case runs throughout much of the reign of the Harper government and We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice captures Canada’s backslide during this chapter. Obomsawin smartly introduces one of Harper’s legacies, his official apology for the Residential Schools, as images of his speech appear intercut between witness testimonies from the present case. How any government, let along any human being, can apologise for gross human rights violations while enacting them in another form is infuriating. While witnesses acknowledge the significance of the apology and its cathartic power, Obomsawin cleverly holds Canada accountable to its history of forgetting.

The final images of the film are ultimately therapeutic and cleansing—a signal that progress might finally be coming. While Obomsawin’s best work remains Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, one suspects that We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice will be her legacy. This film belongs in every Canadian classroom.

We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice screens:
-Tuesday, Sept. 13 at 5:45 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 8:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

TIFF runs Sept. 8-18.
Please visit www.tiff.net for more information.