By Alex de Boer
Alanis Obomsawin’s We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice documents the lifespan of a case brought against the federal government by indigenous child welfare activist and social worker Cindy Blackstock. Filed in 2007, Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations alleged the Canadian government was guilty of systemic discrimination against First Nations children in Canada’s welfare system. After nine grueling years, a verdict was reached by a Human Rights Tribunal in 2016.
Nearly three hours in length, We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice does well to imitate its subject matter. Long courtroom testimonials, expert opinions and judge rulings make up a bulk of this film, shattering any pretense of glamor or efficiency associated with Canada’s judiciary system.
Obomsawin’s subjects speak to her beneath the florescent lights filling court halls and bureaucratic offices. In the background of several talking head shots, crooked binders slouch against one another; they read: “HR-9, HR-10, HR-11..”
Much like these rule-bound, three-ring binders, Canada’s welfare system is one of strict, slow tedium. Blackstock endeavors to prove that Canada’s allocation of welfare funding is rooted in an institutional bias against First Nations children – not long ago there were residential schools, now there are First Nations children living on reserves who are subject to brutal and still legitimized paternalism.
Embedding herself in the Canadian legal system’s patterns of delay, Blackstock measures the near decade this case took to conclude in the number of years a child in the welfare system would have aged. Obomsawin echoes this lost time in her direct cinematic approach. She doesn’t toy with pretty placements; there is no symmetrical curation in her set design, nor is there ever soft lighting. Instead, Obomsawin offers authenticity and makes the audience feel as if they were actually there with her.
We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice is rhythmed by tiresome details given in court. It is a documentary that calls for a patient, deliberate viewer; one who has arrived ready to be educated and to experience a small glimpse of what Blackstock has been through – a bit of what it might feel like to battle a government on behalf of vulnerable children. Because, as it turns out, doing so takes endurance and incredible courage.
Watch We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice on October 13 at 12:30 at SFU.