Just in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial, Hot Docs has delivered their first ever fully in-house commissioned documentary project, In the Name of All Canadians, an ambitious collection of short films dealing with cultural, political, and human rights issues surrounding the thirty-five-year old Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It’s an anthology film comprised of five shorts of varying styles and approaches linked together by wrap-around segments, and while it can feel somewhat uneven as a whole, taken in parts In the Name of All Canadians boasts vital, thoughtful documents pertaining to this country’s sometimes troubled and contradictory sense of history and justice.
Three of the five shorts contained within the whole are atypical forms of documentary filmmaking, and the other two are more traditional in approach. Jérémie Wookey, Janelle Wookey, and Annick Marion blend gorgeous and evocative hand drawn animation with the painful memories of interview subjects for L’Inspecteur, one of the strongest efforts. The Wookeys and Marion tell the stories of French speaking Canadians who lived in rural Manitoba during a time (starting in 1916 and lasting until the mid-20th century) when the teaching of their language was outlawed within the school system. The now elderly former students speak about how a select group of teachers would risk their jobs to teach the French language and stay one step ahead of roaming Anglophone inspectors that were hired by the province to enforce the educational law. The rights of French speaking Canadians to retain and speak their language is an important one to recognize, especially considering that today Canada boasts a populace that speaks hundreds of different languages and dialects from coast-to-coast. The filmmakers behind L’Inspecteur might be making a film reflecting on injustices of the past, but the messages contained within about working together to recognize cultural differences are just as relevant today as they ever were.
Least successful of the shorts, but still highly relevant and playfully realized is Patrick Reed and Andréa Schmidt’s Notwithstanding, a look inside the Charter’s controversial 33rd section, which states that federal and provincial governments can suspend certain rights contained within the document should they deem it necessary. Reed and Schmidt cast actors in a trio of roles where they directly address the camera and deliver three different first-hand accounts of incidents where Canadian citizens had their rights suspended and trampled on at various historical points. It’s not that the stories themselves are without merit and power, but the tone of Notwithstanding feels somewhat stilted, and the approach turns out to be the least ambitious when placed in comparison to the rest of the featured shorts. Still, with this one, it’s the messages that count, and they remain incendiary and frightening no matter who delivers them.
Karen Chapman’s stylish and moving Lessons Injustice isn’t so much a documentary as an impassioned open letter to the nation. Danardo Jones grew up underprivileged and black (two things that are sadly hard to overcome anywhere in the world thanks to prejudices surrounding both), but he managed to become a successful attorney well versed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Chapman and Jones take a simple approach, as Jones’ words form an inner monologue to the audience that unfolds as he drives around with his teenage son. Jones still can’t figure out how to tell his son how the deck has been stacked against him because of his race, and the frustration in his voice is moving beyond words. In addition to the personal aspects of her film, Chapman has also created a searing indictment of the Charter’s biggest shortcoming, which is that if you’re being arrested or questioned, you can’t invoke any of the rights and freedoms contained within the document until you’re in front of a courtroom, and by that point it might be too late, and the damage could already be done. Lessons Injustice will stick in the minds of viewers for a very long time and for great reasons.
The more straightforward documentaries from In the Name of All Canadians retain the personal narratives of the more creatively approached shorts and fit in nicely with the film’s overarching message. Aisha Jamal and Ariel Nasr’s The Long Way Home looks at one of the biggest human rights blights on the already less than exemplary track record of the Harper administration: the detention of Canadian citizens held under terror related charges without cause or evidence. Jamal and Nasr sit down with Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Sudanese-Canadian from Montreal who finds himself imprisoned for several years by Sudanese intelligence and CSIS in his home country after returning to visit his ailing mother. The circumstances surrounding Abdelrazik’s detention and why he was unable to return to his family in Montreal are maddening when one considers that the accused man was not allowed to hear any of the evidence against him, couldn’t appeal, and he was never actually charged with any criminal offenses. Abdelrazik’s story is one of many that have silently played out in Canada, and the scars of these traumatic situations will not be going away any time soon.
Vivian Belik and Jennifer Bowen-Allen Last Resort is the most journalistic and sprawling of the In the Name of All Canadians line-up. Belik and Allen travel to the Lekwungen Territory just outside of Victoria, BC and spend time with the people of the Ktunaxa Nation who have been embroiled in one of Canada’s longest running landmark human rights cases. The indigenous peoples of the territory want to stop wealthy developers from building a multi-million dollar ski resort atop of nearby Jumbo Mountain (which, more accurately, is a glacier and not a mountain). The area in question is home to Qat’muk, the Grizzly Bear Spirit, an important figure in Ktunaxa culture and belief. Last Resort not only tells the story of Canada’s first major trial to mix freedom of religion with land rights (something that should have happened far sooner if the charter had been enacted earlier), but also calls into question the nature of the term “reconciliation,” which most politicians treat as a noun, when it should be treated as a verb and respected as an ongoing process.
These shorts are linked together by Khoa Lê’s In Part, a series of vignettes where Canadians of various backgrounds, ages, cultures, languages, and races are asked a series of escalating questions about the country based around the dynamics set out by the famed Proust Questionnaire. In theory, this is a sound idea, but the answers given by Lê’s subjects aren’t as insightful as the other films contained in the anthology. There are some good answers given here and there (and even a few choice laughs to be had amid a line-up of otherwise heavy and heady films), but the links to the other films are tenuous, and even in taking all segments of In Part as a whole, I’m still not convinced it works in any form.
All criticisms aside, however, In the Name of All Canadians does succeed in making the viewer more aware of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Each filmmaking team that has come together for the project is telling a different story, but they’re all making Canadians aware of the shortcomings of the historical document, and making cases as to why the rights and freedoms contained within it should be protected and enforced for everyone and not just a select few. As the country proudly celebrates its 150th birthday, the still relatively young global superpower needs to be reminded that it still has a lot of work to do, and In the Name of All Canadians proves to be an important film that can remind viewers of that sentiment.