In August 2016, Dr. Tasha Hubbard was working on her doc “Birth of a Family” (Hot Docs 2017) when she learned that Colten Boushie, a young Cree man in Saskatchewan, had died from a gunshot to the back of his head shortly after entering Gerald Stanley’s rural property. The acquittal of Stanley 18 months later by an all-white jury exposed the systemic discrimination that still exists in Canada’s legal system and led the family to national and international stages in the pursuit of justice. As she followed this expected turn in an already tragic story, Hubbard reflected on her own story and the history of the land itself, eventually weaving these elements into the film—a creative decision that was supported by Boushie’s family. “They agreed to the film because they don’t want other families to go through something like this; they want our children to be free and safe,” she said.

“Nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up,” is a co-production between Downstream Documentary Productions and the National Film Board of Canada, is written and directed by Tasha Hubbard, produced by Hubbard, George Hupka, Jon Montes, and Bonnie Thompson; and executive produced by David Christensen, Janice Dawe, and Kathy Avrich-Johnson. The NFB is the sales agent and distributor.

Hubbard – who started her career casting extras and is now a professor at the University of Alberta – made history as the first Indigenous filmmaker to have a feature open the Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Film Festival. She spoke to Variety about how Boushie’s murder became a rallying cry for Canada’s Indigenous community, and how her own past offered insight into the tragedy.

What was your reaction when you first heard the news about Colten Boushie’s death?

I was driving in the prairies with my son and nephew, who are both in the film, and checking my phone and saw that someone I knew – Jade Tootoosis, who is married to my cousin – had lost a relative. Then details started coming out in the media. People were posting social media comments, and I felt sick to my stomach about their tone and that such a terrible tragedy was actually being celebrated.

The boys were in the vehicle with me, and this news stripped away any sense of security they had. I thought, How can my nephew’s mom and I guide these boys on a good path? What happened to Colten felt so random and happened so quickly.

I started writing a blog, and then my birth dad called and said that his wife was related to that family. They both said I should make a film. We all felt the enormity of this event and knew how deeply it would affect the community.

What was your feeling, as a filmmaker, about the emergence of [Colten’s cousin] Jade Tootoosis as a powerful voice not only for her family, but also as an advocate for justice on the world stage?

A family that goes through a tragedy like this is thrust into the public eye. It is overwhelming. Different people in the family were so focused on their grief—as was she, but she was half a step back. The first court appearance of [shooter] Gerald Stanley was the first day of filming, and all these things were taking place. The family didn’t ask to be put in that position, no one would want that. I found it really compelling that this young woman, who really had no choice, was stepping forward to speak at the candlelight vigil.

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George Hupka

What’s behind your decision to use elements of your own story in the film? (Hubbard was part of the so-called Sixties Scoop, the practice that occurred in Canada of taking Indigenous children from their families and placing them in foster homes or up for adoption. Members of her birth and adoptive families appear in the film.)

I was just finishing my first feature, “Birth of a Family,” and my PhD dissertation, and all this started happening. I called [National Film Board of Canada producer] Bonnie Thompson and she asked me, “How are you going to tell it, what is your approach?” I told her how I felt as a mother and a person. I thought, “I need to tell it by being honest about my own feelings.”

I think objectivity is the great myth of documentary filmmaking. I wanted to be upfront that I am approaching this story as someone whose people are from this area, who has studied some of its history, who is raising a boy. One of the first things I asked the family was, “Who was Colten, what kind of person was he?” I discovered he was a thoughtful young man, who was helpful to others, who was coming to terms with the legacy of colonialism. Similar things are said about my son, and so I felt people should also see my son in order to understand Colten.

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Jon Montes

Stereotypes about my people are so strong. It is tragic, in a way, to have to show our humanity. I grapple with that, and I shouldn’t have to, but we’re living in a time where our humanity is often not even considered.

The animation in the sections that describe the Indigenous and settler histories of the land is a lovely touch that allows viewers to step back for a moment. What was your creative thinking there? 

I’m an academic, and the two spaces I inhabit often overlap. I think and write about how the past is still with us. I was thinking about 1885, and what has brought us to this point, and that colonialism is ongoing. So the animation comes in when I am narrating the sections about this history, and I approach it as if I’m telling the story to my 12-year-old son and nephew.

I have seen throughout my career that the “official spokesperson version” of a tragic event is that it is an isolated incident. Indigenous people know that is false, that it is systemic. Sadly there are other stories like this one. We all hope the film is part of process that will lead to change and prevent these things from happening.

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George Hupka