The jury anguished over its decision, but After the Last River was awarded the Nigel Moore Award for Youth Programming when the DOXA Documentary Film Festival wrapped on May 10.
It was a stiff race between Vicki Lean’s first, zero-budget feature and Jerry Rothwell’s more luxuriously funded Greenpeace bio, How to Change the World. But it was Lean’s courage that was ultimately honoured, along with the intense currency of her subject matter—which should be evaluated by anyone with a Canadian passport.
Lean began documenting the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario in 2008, when mining giant De Beers opened the Victor diamond mine 90 kilometres upriver from the community, on the edge of the resource-rich Ring of Fire. The film takes on multiple issues, including rising environmental toxicity, critically underfunded education, and the housing crisis that required a Red Cross intervention in 2011 and helped prompt both Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement.
The film also examines the response in Ottawa and in the media to a situation that had become a global embarrassment to Canada. Victim-blaming appeared to ensue, with talk-radio host Charles Adler, among others, raising the dubious question of fiscal mismanagement in a community where some families reside in tents.
“Journalists under tight deadlines sometimes seem to look for easy answers and grasp at whatever,” concludes Lean, in a call to the Straight. “In this case I thought it was very unethical. It’s feeding something very deep and dark in our country about race issues. As [Timmins–James Bay MP] Charlie Angus said in the film, when taxpayer dollars are mentioned along with First Nations, a really deep racial divide rears its ugly head.”
Other pundits asked if the community was viable at all, an idea Lean finds shocking. “Ontario is building the Far North as its economic future. MPs are calling the Ring of Fire Canada’s next tarsands. It’s being touted by politicians as this incredible economic opportunity. There are 15 more diamond deposits near Attawapiskat. How is that community not viable? That disconnect is profoundly disturbing.”
Meanwhile, After the Last River offers a compelling picture of the relationship between Attawapiskat and De Beers, and in particular the questionable value of the IBA (Impact Benefit Assessment) that was negotiated by the company, community leaders, and their lawyers (who were paid for by De Beers). Lean admits she was “shaken” when De Beers vice-president of external and corporate affairs Tom Ormsby showed up at her MFA thesis defence—the film began as a student project at York University—and began cataloguing his objections to it.
“I’m a student filmmaker, they’re the most powerful diamond company in the world,” she says. “They’re really good at managing their image and staying out of the public eye, especially when it comes to Attawapiskat. I think when De Beers sold its buying offices in war-torn Angola and the DR-Congo and came to Canada, they thought it was going to be a lot easier. They didn’t fully realize the structural problems and inequalities they’d encounter.”
Lean also reckons that she benefited from Mr. Ormsby’s visit, in the end. “If anything, there were certain areas where I wasn’t clear enough on my criticisms, so it actually forced me to strengthen what I was trying to say,” she says.