The notion that an Indigenous spelling bee competition could serve as the cohesive force to unite disparate First Nations children across Canada under one nation, as the title of Hot Docs’s 2017 opening film suggests, is perhaps the most obvious of all the liberal consensus threads to unspool in this new documentary that, in its effort to deliver a personal story of hope, mostly shirks the opportunity to probe a wider and troubling political context. (For an alternative view on Bee Nation, read Judy Wolfe’s profile Making Bee Nation)
Directed by internationally acclaimed photographer Lana Šlezić, Bee Nation is an archetypal opening festival film. It’s chock full of bubbly music, peppered with majestic aerials, focused on a kid’s competition with built-in narrative crescendo, and underpinned by a status-quo affirming socio-political discourse, all of which helps audiences to go home feeling good (maybe even about Canada in this case).
The film, which is beautifully lensed but formally conventional, follows the course of the inaugural Provincial First Nations Spelling Bee in Saskatchewan, focusing on inspiringly bright, ambitious and charming students, including future leader William from the Kahkewistahaw First Nation Reserve, as they work hard to memorise random words from the lexicon of one of Canada’s founding colonizing languages.
That these kids are competing feverishly against one another to spell on cue words like “economics” and “federalism” is no fault of theirs nor their parents and community leaders. If anything, the film unintentionally reveals the dire state of cultural isolationism and neo-colonial exclusionary systems that would lead Cree children and their communities to focus intellectual effort on mastering select words of the language that has been used to articulate racist assimilation policies in this country for over a century.
These policies, whether the 1857 “Civilization of Indian Tribes Act” or the 1867 “Indian Act” have made the eradication of Indigenous languages a top priority. Canada’s residential school system was the materialisation of some of these policies, where language and culture were the ‘immaterial’ corollary of land dispossession. This systemic erasure recalls Josephine Peck’s (Mi’kmaq) quote in Minority Populations in Canadian Second Language Education, where she has rightly drawn attention to the intersection of language, culture and self-determination in the colonial context: “How can our children express their world view if they no longer have their language?”
Evan Taypotat, the passionate school principal of Chief Kahkewistahaw Community School and featured in the film, provides a glimmer of this context in the otherwise feel-good Bee Nation when he articulates the hypocrisy related to the thousands of dollars deficit per First Nations child in education next to the extra money poured into Francophone schools (some just a short distance from his Reserve) in order to protect minority culture and language.
Props should be given to the film’s director for stepping back at the opening night Q&A as Taypotat schooled the audience, in no uncertain terms, on the seriousness of this situation and its social, political, economic and cultural ramifications. Also, kudos to Šlezić for constructing representations of rich, tender and loving relations between parents and children in Bee Nation. Those sequences that depict support and understanding serve as a corrective to decades of negative portrayals of Indigenous parenting, especially concerning fathers.
That said, Bee Nation is ultimately a film that uncritically windows a much wider process of assimilation, narrowing the field of vision so that audiences are compelled to root for Indigenous children whose education is chronically under-funded and who are gradually losing their own languages while working impressively hard to spell words in English. On the cusp of the Canadian government’s 150 national gush and at a time of reconciliation, it is surprising that Hot Docs would choose to open the 2017 edition with this film (and not, for instance, one of their programmed films by Indigenous directors).
I understand the aforementioned “opening film” requisite boxes that Bee Nation checks off, and judging from the many delighted audience members who left the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Thursday night (and the media’s equally delightful coverage of the film), those boxes were checked and then some. But the lack of cultural and political acuity in opening the most important documentary festival in North America with this film, at this time, is perplexing, to say the least. Perhaps the real synchronicity of this event was that we were sitting in the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at the Rogers-sponsored Hot Docs festival watching a Rogers-funded documentary about a competition run by an organisation funded by Rogers that included an uplifting scene where the subjects went to a baseball game at the Rogers Centre. The film is also up for the Rogers Audience Award.
Speaking to Taypotat after the screening, it became clear he supports the film because it has put his reserve on the mainstream map and creates a potential platform to discuss the issue he wants Canadians to learn about and take action on: the neo-colonial policies that ensure Indigenous children are underfunded in education by between $4,000 and $6,000 per child (compared to non-Indigenous children in English-speaking schools). This is understandable. Taypotat, members of the Kahkewistahaw First Nation Reserve and other Indigenous communities in Canada live in a country whose government and dominant culture still cling to colonial policies and assimilation attitudes toward this country’s First Peoples. After all, when a bigot like Kevin O’Leary can garner more consistent media attention than any Indigenous story, the chance at a positive representation on a big stage is a rare opportunity.
When Taypotat eloquently seized the stage on Thursday night, and at one moment implored of the audience: “Did you see the mould on the walls of these families? Did you see the condition of the houses in the film?” people around me quietly nodded their heads, remembering these background images.
Yet, his provocation left me with still more questions about Bee Nation and what kinds of films will create allies and accomplices in the struggle for Indigenous rights and equality in Canada.
Namely: Did we see Canada’s systems of colonization and assimilation and did we feel implicated? Did we see how a spelling bee can mask the structural oppression of Indigenous people in this country while giving audiences a feel-good story to cheer for? Did we see connections between the personal drama and the wider historical-political context?
Did we see that?