I remember the Oka Crisis. Or, at least, I thought I did.
As a pre-teen, I vaguely remember hearing the stories of the Mohawk people who protested the building of a golf course. I remember seeing it on the news and hearing the testimonies of those who were worried that things would escalate. Because I was so young though, I didn’t understand what was really going on or issues such as media bias. Maybe none of us outside the situation really did.
Thankfully, in her stunning new film Beans, writer/director Tracey Deer offers some much-needed perspective on the events that took place that summer. Set against the drama that took place in 1990s Quebec, Beans (Kiawentiio Tarbell) is a young girl who lives on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawa:ke. Staying with her loving parents (Rainbow Dickerson and Joel Montgrand) and her little sister (Violah Beauvais), Beans lives a life of innocence and safety on the reserve. However, when a proposed expansion to a golf course threatens their burial ground, an armed stand-off develops between the Canadian government and Mohawk population, exposing the racist undercurrents of the local population against the Indigenous population. Unprepared for the hatred that she experiences, Beans must re-examine who she is and transform herself into her own kind of warrior.
Although Beans itself is a fictional story, the film showcases many true events that took place during the events of the Oka Crisis. Having grown up during that time herself, Deer used her personal experiences to shape the characters and story.
“’The film is inspired by true events’ is how we phrase it because all of the events depicted of the Oka Crisis in the film did happen,” she explains. “But my family in the movie is a fictional family. Beans, my protagonist, played by the incredible Kiawentiio is the emotional through line. The coming-of-age journey that she goes on is very much my coming-of-age journey. But I have placed the character in these various historical events [and] I wasn’t at all of them myself. Some of the things that she does and her experiences are not identical to my own, but the emotional through line, the feelings and the growth and the shattering of innocence, all of that, is pulled directly from my own coming-of-age summer.”
While Oka was a massively important event in Canadian culture, Deer notes that history has only ever told it from one side. However, Beans allowed her the opportunity to tell a more complete picture of what really took place and the damage that it caused her family.
“[Voice] is so important. It’s one of the big reasons it was so important to me to make this film,” says Deer. “The way the media [covered] that event 30 years ago did not at all jive with the experience I was having of it. The way they would talk about the Mohawk protesters. These were my neighbors, my cousins, my uncles, my aunties, and to call them terrorists and send the army in against them, it didn’t make any sense. So, it was important to me to show the other side of it—the inside out view of it—so that people could see what it was really like… For so long, the policy of the powers that be [in] the government is to squash us, divide and conquer and take. Oka was really that watershed moment where Indigenous people stood up and said ‘no more’. I’m so proud that we did that. I learned so much about our strength and our resiliency from that summer. I learned so much about the importance of voice and to have my voice heard.”
“I learned a lot of negative things [and] devastating, destructive things that almost destroyed me. I was suicidal at 15 because of all of that rage and all of that hatred was just living inside me. That was that sense of innocence. That sense of safety, the ability to dream, all of that was stolen from me that summer. And I don’t want that stolen from any more indigenous children. So, it’s important that we tell the story like it is and Canadians step up to right the wrongs of history and make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Embedded within Beans lies a powerful question about the nature of resistance. Torn between her father’s more aggressive stance and her mother’s insistence on integrity, Beans must wrestle with what it means to stand up against injustice. By showing this tension, Deer wanted to highlight the value of both perspectives but also show the damage that hatred can do to the soul.
“It’s really the tight rope that I have walked my entire life,” she considers. “I would say certainly as an Indigenous filmmaker, I firmly believe that violence is like a disease. Hatred is a disease. When we put it on to others, it then grows in others and then it’s put in and then it continues. I say that because I know that that was my experience. I learned to hate that day when those rocks were thrown at us, when the back window was burst open and my sister got cut with glass. That is the moment that I learned to hate. Unlike Beans, who lashes out quite a bit in the movie, I wanted to show what that hate looks like. But, for me personally, that hate lived inside me and it started tearing me up.”
“We have to have a line that says violence is never the answer. We need to stand up for ourselves and we do need to be strong. As her mother says, you need to be able to stand up for what’s important to you. And I believe, for me, that is the line that there is a way to stand up and not feed the cycle. And I feel you see that in the scene where the women deescalate the violence. There are ways to do that and we have to get much better at doing that. I think we’re a society that turns to violence and turns to retribution and vengeance way too easily.”
Through Beans’ childlike lens, Deer remembers how these events affected her own childhood and reshaped her understanding of the world.
“That’s exactly what my adolescence felt like. It was a really carefree, fun childhood up until that summer,” she remembers. “That summer really, really shattered that when I realized that who I am is not welcome in the wider world. There’s no place for me. When those people threw those rocks at me, they told me I was worthless. They considered me and my family worthless. So, how as a child, how do you process that? How do you understand that? Okay, I am so worthless that they are allowed to throw rocks at me and the cops stand by and let that happen.”
“This film takes place during the backdrop of the Oka crisis, but incidents like this are happening across the country to this day, right?,” she continues. “Our children are being told by our society, by our country that they are not welcome. And we are told every day that it is not safe for us in the wider world. That is really what I wanted to get across, because I think that sense of entitlement and sense of safety is something that the majority of Canadians take for granted. It is a given that with the right motivation and the will, you can pursue your dreams. You have a tonne of examples of people just like you, who were doing every single thing in the world. So, if they can, why can’t you? You can do it. I want people to understand that that’s not the country that they present to us. If your child was Beans, and this is what she was going through, how would you feel about that? I believe we all have the ability to make a difference. We all have our personal sphere of power, so we can all do something about this. I want people to see this devastating journey that Beans goes on and leave the theater wanting to do what they can to prevent it from happening to any other young indigenous child.
Having said this, the obvious question remains whether or not things have changed in Canada since then. Considering the horrors of abuse that have taken place against the Indigenous children continue to lead the headlines, there remains a great deal of work to be done to heal the pain that has been caused. Even so, Deer also says that she believes some progress has been made.
“The film is a historical movie, you know. It took place 30 years ago but, as you said, the themes are all incredibly current,” she contends. “That makes me really sad and it makes me really angry because, on many levels, I don’t think we’ve come very far as a country in the way that the country handles Indigenous issues. I don’t think the country and the leadership are very good at listening to Indigenous people. I think that’s one of the big things that has to happen for change to happen is [that] Canadians need to become much better listeners and not be so quick to judgment or so quick to think that they know what the solution is. I think it’s just about listening and then doing, based on what you’ve heard.”
“Now, on the other hand, the thing is [that] I don’t want to be all just doom and gloom and dire. I do think there has been progress on some levels. I see it right now. I see that there’s an openness in this country to be hearing from us. There’s a willingness to take down those walls. It’s hard to take down those walls because those walls protect you from feeling implicated[and] responsible, but you are. This is your country, and these things are still happening across the country. The coming of age story for our indigenous kids is still incredibly similar to the story that you see in Beans. So, more work needs to be done. I do think that I am encouraged. I am an optimist, and I always look for ways to be helpful. And I am hopeful. I want to believe in this country and believe in Canadians because I need to. I need you all to do the work. It’s not on us to make things better for things that we didn’t because it’s up to Canadians to do that. So, my answer is twofold. We have not come far enough, but things are happening that are giving me hope.”
Beans is now available in theatres.
To see our complete conversation with Tracey Deer on YouTube, click here.
To hear our conversation with Tracey Deer, click here.