The Unforgotten is a short documentary film that explores Indigenous interactions with the Canadian healthcare system at five stages in life — birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and Elder-hood — and how the Canadian healthcare system has failed at every stage in its oath to “do no harm.” With Yellowknife’s own Dr. Ewan Affleck branching out from his medical background to take the role of executive producer in this powerful film, The Unforgotten turns documentary making into an artform to discuss how Indigenous peoples have, in some cases, become literal prisoners to a healthcare system that does not have their best interests in mind.
Four years in the making, I would argue that this film speaks even louder now than it could have in the past. It’s pretty common nowadays for us to feel like medicine and vaccinations have had a much larger role to play in how we live our lives than ever before. The impact that medicine has had this past year in our day-to-day lives, however, is not new to some.
“I never was a teenager like you,” says Stella Blackbird, a Keeseekoowenin Ojibway residential school survivor. Statements like Blackbird’s are the truth, and they are important to listen to. Stephen Gladue, a Winnipeg-based artist followed in the “Adulthood” segment of this film, talks about the importance of his mural of Brian Sinclair, a middle-aged Indigenous man who visited the ER in Winnipeg and died in the waiting room after not receiving care for 34 hours. Sinclair was left unattended for over a day as the medical staff reportedly either assumed he was homeless and seeking shelter, had already been helped, or was intoxicated, as he threw up multiple times and was assumed to have passed out when, in fact, he had been dead for seven hours. Gladue reported that he wanted to make sure that no one could ignore Sinclair’s mural the way they had ignored his body. This film does something similar for all those unrecognized by the Canadian healthcare system.
Everything from removing Indigenous populations from the land they needed to practice medicine to eugenics — the intentional breeding or sterilization of certain people groups — have broken the trust of Indigenous people that the Canadian medical system has their best interests in mind. Yet, we really don’t talk about this a lot. Eugenics, a practice familiar to most people from a basic high school education of the Second World War, has often been left out of Canada’s own history books even though the forced sterilization of Indigenous women was and continues to be an issue — and this affects us up North. In 1941, Dr. J. A. Bildfell spoke openly for the forced sterilization of the Inuit. As you can probably already tell, this film could be deeply disturbing to many, and there is a list of support services available after its credits have finished rolling to help people with the emotional distress that this film might trigger.
Truely a model for the power of art to call attention to the often unrecorded experiences of Indigenous peoples, this documentary is as eye-opening as it is genuinely gorgeous to watch. From the direct impact of the Canadian medical system on Indigenous lives and wellness to the lasting legacies of their mistreatment, this film shifts flawlessly between animation and camera footage in a way that ultimately brings beauty and life to this heavy story.
With music from Riit, a Pangnirtung born singer and one of my favourite northern artists, and other fantastic singers to back up this film’s impactful directing, The Unforgotten was absolutely worth watching. Available for free on The Unforgotten’s website with closed captioning in English and French, it is also incredibly accessible. Altogether stunning as a film and heart shattering as a story, this film has something important to say about what has gone unsaid for the past 200 years.