A new documentary film on Indigenous peoples’ experiences with medical care challenges Canada’s reputation as a shining example of public health-care.
The Unforgotten, a free, 35 minute, online documentary tells stories about health through the five stages of life: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and Elderhood. Long-time Yellowknife doctor Ewan Affleck was the executive producer of the film.
Each stage focuses on how Canada’s institutions failed to meet the needs of Indigenous peoples’ health, or even attempted to destroy them.
“Birth” tells the history of sterilization of Indigenous women in Canadian history, using newspaper clippings from most of the 20th century reporting that officials and some doctors advocated sterilization.
It’s narrated by Morningstar Mercredi, a Dene-Metis woman in Edmonton who survived forced sterilization.
“Childhood” centres on Sonny James MacDonald, a renowned carver originally from Fort Chipewyan, Alta. and who lived in Hay River and Fort Smith.
MacDonald speaks about being sent to Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton as a boy after he caught tuberculosis, and his experiences of abuse there.
MacDonald died on April 20, 2021.
Charles Camsell is among 29 “Indian hospitals” named in a $1.1 billion class action lawsuit launched in January 2018 on behalf of former patients who say they were abused in the hospitals.
“Adolescence” takes place in Nunavut and is narrated by a young Inuit woman and the voice of her grandmother speaking in Inuktitut.
Through subtitles, the grandmother recounts stories of police killing sled dogs and Inuit forced to leave their traditional camps for modern schools.
A grim statistic is displayed on the high suicide rate among Inuit, which according to Statistics Canada is nine times higher than it is for non-Indigenous Canadians, according to a report released in 2019.
“Adulthood” follows the progress of artist Stephen Gladue as he works on an enormous mural in downtown Winnipeg.
The mural depicts Brian Sinclair, a 45 year-old Indigenous man who went to the emergency room with a treatable condition in 2008 but who died after 34 hours of staff neglecting to give him proper care.
Although an inquest was conducted into his death, Sinclair’s family was frustrated by its conclusions because they said it ignored the role of racism in the health care systems, CBC reported.
“Elderhood” focuses on the late Stella Blackbird and her Medicine Eagle Camp at the Keeseekoowenin Ojibway First Nation in Manitoba.
Blackbird uses the gathering of traditional herbs and plants as a pathway to healing from the trauma she experienced as a child at residential school.
Other campers describe the connections made with nature and with Blackbird as they join her in gathering and learning about the medicinal benefits of the herbs. Blackbird died on June 27, 2020. She was 82.
Dr. Affleck admits that members of the medical community rarely venture into filmmaking.
But the film was something Affleck had wanted to do for many years as a way to spur positive change in the health care system, which he said is “quite dysfunctional.”
In the first 10 years of his 30 year career he worked with Inuit communities in northern Quebec and Anishnaabe people in northwestern Ontario. He has lived in Yellowknife for 20 years.
“I think I bought into a mythology about Canada, that we’re the land of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and all citizens are treated equally and we have the best health care system in the world,” he said. “I headed off to work in that system, only to discover a much darker history. When I started out it wasn’t talked about. But for Indigenous peoples…those stories are well-known.”
Over the years, he gradually came to understand the inequities in the health care system and the historical reasons for them.
The film became a way for him to step outside the system and try to bring about change through art and storytelling.
When he started the film project four years ago and helped assemble the team who eventually made it, he said there was a “deep well of desire” to address Indigenous peoples’ experiences with the health care system and the historical connections.
“As doctors we take the Hippocratic oath: do no harm. But if things aren’t good, do you remain silent? I don’t think you can. Even if it’s a little scary, if you tread lightly and listen, then there is a place for us all. Either ignore the problem or go to a scary place.”
Adding to The Unforgotten’s uncommon development path, the film was fully funded by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA).
Dr. Alika Lafontaine, the first Indigenous president-election of the CMA said it’s “really novel” the organization would support such a film.
“It probably reflects the evolution of how we impact system change in health,” the Cree-Anishinaabe doctor said over the phone from Grand Prairie, Alta.
“They’re recognizing that the future of changing medicine is ensuring that we become as authentic as we can be with the lived experiences of people in the health care system.”
Lafontaine worked with The Unforgotten as senior project advisor, or as a “sounding board for ideas” and providing feedback, as he described it. He already knew Affleck before the film idea came up and the two had discussed the experiences of Indigenous patients in health care.
Lafontaine believes the impact of the film could mirror what happened after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)’s final report was released in 2015.
There was push back at first, and some questioned the veracity of the stories in the report, while other stories were suppressed, he said.
“I think the film is part of that cycle where you share, normalize and unpack the experiences. It’s been said many times that truth comes before reconciliation. I think the starting point lies in that truth. I think the health care system isn’t well-designed to deal with criticism or harm that happens to patients. But I would say that many things that create harm leads to opportunities for voluntary change where we can have big impacts.”
Acclaimed Yellowknife singer-songwriter Leela Gilday worked as the music director of the film and curated and licensed all of its music, the first time she had worked in a supervisory role for a movie.
She worked to ensure that music created by Indigenous musicians was featured and that it was regionally-appropriate to the diverse settings in The Unforgotten.
“It’s been personal because as an Indigenous person everybody has been touched by this by the real history of the health care system,” Gilday said. “I really believe in the importance of these films as opening a conversation. There’s a lot of awareness about residential schools in the general public (but) I don’t think people know about many of these things that happened like the sterilization and the dog slaughter.”