A woman sits at her dining room table at dusk. A clothesline sways in the wind. The woman holds a “Help Wanted” ad, edges torn. She is about to leave an abusive partner and join The Native Voice, Canada’s first indigenous newspaper. As she closes the door to the house, the sun peaks through cloud. She begins to sing.
The scene, featuring Mohawk actor-musician Cheri Maracle, is a metaphor for the advent of indigenous nationalism in 1940s British Columbia, a mission mirrored in the aforementioned classified ad. But those in the Native brotherhood and sisterhood had to help themselves without government cooperation.
The Road Forward offers a history of First Nations politics on the West Coast, shifting from interviews with elders to musical narratives that pry open the continuing trauma of residential schools and missing and murdered women, performed by indigenous artists including composer Wayne Lavallee, actor Michelle St. John and hip-hop artist Ronnie Dean Harris. Writer-director Marie Clements’ message is clear: art is a driving force behind reconciliation, in the same way The Native Voice circulated First Nations stories across the province—when all others cast a blind eye.
While the interludes roll seamlessly like the 1980 Constitution Express train that chugged along to Canada’s capital—another key event depicted here—at times The Road Forward’s compass swings in all four directions and obscures the central theme. But the sound of the drum rising from the newsroom typewriters draws the viewer back in, a smoke signal of something much deeper: there is still so much work to be done.