Toronto filmmaker Ali Kazimi has told a story of a B.C. First Nation declared extinct in 1956.
A few years later, the Canadian and U.S. governments signed a treaty leading to the flooding of a significant chunk of their traditional territory.
But there’s a catch: the Sinixt people are actually still alive in the Arrow Lakes region of B.C. And in Kazimi’s new film, Beyond Extinction: Sinixt Resurgence, they continue to demand recognition, only to be repeatedly denied by the state.
“I point out that this was ethnic cleansing by legislation,” Kazimi tells the Straight by phone. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
In 1995, Kazimi began making the film, which premieres at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, after being contacted by a friend, Vancouver lawyer Zool Suleman. He told Kazimi about a very unusual immigration case.
A Sinixt man from his nation’s traditional territory in Washington state, Robert Watt, wanted to travel freely across the border into his First Nation’s traditional territory in the Arrow Lakes region. The Canadian government wanted to deport him—and Suleman was presenting arguments that Watt should be allowed to freely cross the border in recognition of his Aboriginal rights.
The case was important because it could have implications upon thousands upon thousands of other First Nations peoples whose traditional territories crossed the border.
So Kazimi took his camera on a trip with Suleman to the Kootenays to learn more about his client and the Sinixt people.
“Those four days that I spent there were truly life-changing,” Kazimi says. “I was privy to everything, I was privy to internal discussions. I was privy to debates. I was privy to the joy and the laughter and the incredible warmth of the elders. I felt so privileged.”
He was working on another film at that time, Shooting Indians: A Journey with Jeffrey Thomas, which was completed in 1997.
Kazimi wasn’t able to raise the necessary funds to finish a film about the Sinixt people in the 1990s. He went on to make several critically acclaimed documentaries, including Continuous Journey, which put the expulsion Komagata Maru from Vancouver's harbour in 1914 in context with what else was happening at that time.
But the stories that he heard in that 1995 trip to the B.C. Interior remained with him.
Kazimi was particularly impressed by Sinixt spokesperson Marilyn James and elder Eva Orr, who each spoke at length on camera about how their people had been erased from existence north of the U.S.-Canada border.
In recent years, Kazimi returned to the area for more filming. And this, along with remarkable historical footage and video shot in the B.C. Interior by other filmmakers, shows a side of colonialism that few British Columbians are aware of.
One of the key turning points came in 1846 with the Oregon Treaty, which established the 49th parallel as the border west of the Rockies between the United States and what was then British North America.
In 1872, a U.S. presidential order forcibly amalgamated 12 tribes, including the Sinixt, into the “Colville Confederacy”. Its people live on in a U.S. reservation that extends from the international border into central Washington state.
Even though pit houses document the existence of Sinixt villages in the Arrow Lakes area, the people did not exist in Canada, according to the government. And that drives James’s activism to this day.
“Marilyn is one of the most remarkable people I’ve met, and she has been a source of inspiration for the film from the time I talked to her,” Kazimi says. “I’m inspired by her sheer willpower that drives her. I have seen the enormous price she paid for it.
“She’s taking on the entire state of Canada and…she is being targeted by the state with all of its machinery, from the police to the legal system,” he continues. “But she maintains a kind of steadfast core and centre of who she is, where she belongs, and where her people come from. And what she’s fighting for. It’s very clear to her.”
Beyond Extinction: Sinixt Resurgence also exposes how the B.C. treaty process pits First Nations against one another. By necessity, Kazimi explains, they must make territorial claims that are larger than what they will receive. And that leads to inevitable conflicts when there are overlapping claims.
“That’s built into the process,” Kazimi insists. “It’s completely baked in.”
To him, it’s all so familiar. When he was growing up in Delhi, India, students were taught in school how the British colonial power used divide-and-rule methodology against the Indian independence movement. The effect in B.C., he adds, is to weaken the collective response to the state’s efforts to subjugate First Nations.
“It is about pitting one group against another,” Kazimi says. “And then how do you engage in reconciliation when that parallel process is going on?”
He says that some First Nations are challenging this effort to drive wedges between them. As an example, he notes that the Okanagan bands are forming alliances. But the problem, Kazimi adds, is that they were given such tiny reserves under the Indian Act, which he also reveals in his film.
“It’s all about the land and it’s all about claims and a recognition of traditional territory,” he says. “For example, in the Sinixt, it’s reduced to a tiny dot of barely a few hundred acres of completely uncultivable land. That says something, visually.
“And also, over the years, I’ve realized that most Canadians are completely unaware of what the Indian Act does and how it operates—and how it’s such an instrument, as Indigenous scholars have pointed out, of forced assimilation.”