The film opens with a close-up image of Pine needles so lush-green you can almost smell them, as a woman speaks Kanien’kéka, returning an absorbed audience to the events that set into motion the 78-day standoff known today as the Siege of Kanehsatake.
It was early in the morning on July 11, 1990, some at the Pines were not yet awake. A small group began their morning in ceremony, giving thanks and burning tobacco. It was at this same time that Surete du Quebec (SQ) officers armed themselves with tear gas before they descended on the blockade.
Kanàtenhs – When The Pine Needles Fall is Ellen Garbiel’s debut documentary film, focusing on the women at the helm of the resistance in 1990, the women who walked to the frontlines, unarmed, to peacefully negotiate terms, and the very same who endured the violence that would follow.
The screening was held at the Royal Canadian Legion Mohawk Branch 219 on Tuesday, August 15, as part of a yearly collaboration between the Eastern Connection Film Festival (ECFF) and the Montreal International First People’s Festival (FPF). Earlier that day, Gabriel won Best Canadian Short Documentary, an Espace Autochtones SRC Award.
“Ellen Gabriel is such an important figure for Indigenous people internationally, especially in Montreal,” said Charles Bender, president of the board of directors at Land InSights, the organization behind the FPF. “I was 15 when I saw her on TV for the first time, standing up for her people.
“I was really interested in knowing what she had to say about (the Crisis) so many years later. What’s left of that fight? What’s still to be done?”
These kinds of conversations and connections are central to the ECFF’s mission, according to Marion Delaronde, artistic director at Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KOR).
“It’s really to provide them with a platform to engage with the audience,” she said. “I think that’s the best way to build great film directors – live viewings, and to celebrate them.”
Art as Resistance
By engaging with the information through film, Gabriel hopes to spread awareness and create conversations about the events of 1990 and the consequences that persist today.
“Hopefully it will inspire discussion. Hopefully it will inspire teachers to teach it, and that it’ll be remembered as something that wasn’t a choice for us – it wasn’t a choice. We had to do what we did that summer,” said Gabriel. “I want to share that with the younger generation.”
This screening was a unique opportunity to bring the story home to Kahnawake, in collaboration with FPF, whose roots grow from the same origin as the film’s.
“The festival started during the resistance. Obviously getting people to be interested in Native culture was really hard back then, but it was an act of resistance itself,” said Bender. “At a moment where people are like ‘Natives? They’re still around? And they’re blocking bridges?’ We’re going to change that script.”
When the smoke clears
In telling her story, Gabriel’s film refocuses a conversation that has, for thirty-three years, been misunderstood. The film incorporates authentic audio-visual footage, including the sounds of gunshots, chaotic screams, and images of bullet-laden trees.
It also clarifies the underlying source of the conflict: a dispute over the longtime cemetery in Kanesatake that the Municipality of Oka had begun plans to replace with an extension to the neighbouring golf course.
Mitch Deer, a Mohawk warrior present at the film screening, remembers these events. “In our culture, men are just tools of the nation, women are the backbone of the nation,” he said. “The media doesn’t talk about that. They care about the guns and the warriors and stuff like that, so it’s nice to see what she did.”
Deer brought with him a tear gas canister thrown by the SQ during the raid, which he saved for 33 years. “We’ve got to keep talking about this, we’ve got to keep bringing it up because if not, it’s going to die, all the memories, all the stuff we tried to do.”
Along with footage, the film also includes Gabriel’s visual art, poetry, and personal photos. One resident of Two Mountains attended the screening in Kahnawake. “I really appreciated the art,” said Rola Helou. “I think it’s wonderful that Ellen, who put her entire life in this, has been an activist, and now she’s using this new medium to tell the story from her perspective.”
Ultimately, Gabriel’s telling of the story had a rare and vital protagonist – the land itself. “That’s why I put in the poetry, I put in my art, all of it is my art. I wanted to honour that story somehow,” Gabriel explained. “The story isn’t just about the people, it’s about the lands, the trees. It’s about them too. Who speaks for them?