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Ellen Gabriel honoured for her film in Montreal

Deborah Murray

April 17, 2024

Ellen Gabriel, documentarian, artist, human and environmental rights activist, Kanien’keháka from Kanehsatà:ke, recently won the Grand Prix, awarded each year to select artists by the Conseil des arts de Montréal. This year, for the first time in its 38 years of existence, the Conseil awarded the prize to an Indigenous artist.

This April, Ellen Gabriel was honoured for her documentary film Kanatenhs: When The Pine Needles Fall (2022), for which she is writer, producer, director, and narrator.

In 2023, the film won Best Canadian Short Film during the Festival international Présence autochtone (International First Peoples Festival), which notably started during the 1990 resistance. It has been nominated or awarded prizes at 30 festivals in a dozen countries.

The film opens on July 11 1990, the first day of a 78-day siege of Kanehsatà:ke, on the north shore of Montreal. We hear Ellen Gabriel begin the story of that day. Soon, we hear the sounds of SQ (Quebec’s police force) gunfire as they storm barricades set up to stop a golf course and townhouse development from being built on Kanienʼkeháka land. The heart of the battle takes place in the Pines, Onen'tókon, a forested area that includes a sacred Kanienʼkeháka burial ground.

As history has played out since the time covered in the film, we know that the RCMP and the Canadian army soon join the SQ to occupy Kanehsatà꞉ke.

In addition to footage from that first day, Gabriel includes her visual art, poetry, and personal photos.

Kanatenhs: When The Pine Needles Fall sets out to correct the perspective of the time. Some of the most iconic images of Indigenous resistance have been of masked men wearing camouflage carrying rifles standing up to the police and army. In this film, Gabriel shines a light on the Kanien'keháka women who peacefully confront the police tactical squad on the first day of the conflict and leave a legacy for new generations engaging in Indigenous rights struggles.

In 1990, Ellen Gabriel became widely known when the People of the Longhouse and her community of Kanehsatà꞉ke chose her to be their spokesperson. And now, she has made this film:

"I wanted to reclaim the narrative that’s been stolen from us and from our perspective of that first day,” she said, lamenting how colonial narratives still swirl around 1990. (The Eastern Door, July 31 2023)

For over 45 years, Ellen Gabriel has fought on the frontlines of some of the most critical struggles of Indigenous people and their land in Quebec, across Canada, and internationally. She has become ally to others protesting the same unrelenting impacts of colonialism and imperialism. In recent struggles, Gabriel has allied herself with the Chinese community in Montreal to preserve their history, presence and the very fact of China Town. She has spoken in solidarity at many of the Montreal demonstrations  of Palestinians fighting against genocide and for the return of their land.

Kanatenhs: When The Pine Needles Fall is a testament to the role the women of Kanehsatà꞉ke, the guardians of their land. The siege of Kanehsatà꞉ke still resonates today in no small part due to Ellen Gabriel and these women.

Montreal Screening of Kanatenhs: When The Pine Needles Fall, followed by a discussion with Ellen Gabriel, Wanda Gabriel and Clifton Nicholas, Friday, May 10, 2024, 4 pm–6 pm, Concordia University, J.W. McConnell Building, 1400 De Maisonneuve Blvd. W.

• Watch the trailer: Kanatenhs: When The Pine Needles Fall


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