Film project puts elders in directors’ chair

When Mike Evans set out five years ago to create a video documentary of Metis elders in Prince George, he knew he would have to do things a bit differently. He wanted the elders to actively steer the project's direction.

When Mike Evans set out five years ago to create a video documentary of Metis elders in Prince George, he knew he would have to do things a bit differently.

He wanted the elders to actively steer the project’s direction. That part didn’t prove difficult: most weren’t shy about issuing orders. “They’d say, ‘You’re coming on a picnic,’” said Evans with a laugh.

And he didn’t want it to be told from one single point of view, at the expense of other perspectives.

“When you make one story, you’re silencing a whole bunch of other ones,” says the associate professor of community, culture and global studies at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

So Evans teamed up with Stephen Foster, another UBC prof and media artist, to create a video installation that opens tonight at the Old Fire Hall.

One video projector and several large television sets glow in the darkened room. Each can be controlled to allow viewers to navigate their way through different video segments, ranging in length from 10 minutes to an hour, that are connected to one another through a web of associations.

One takes viewers on a picnic with elders, who explain how to identify Labrador tea before boiling the plant up with lunch.

Another follows the elders on a roadtrip to Lac St-Anne, the site of an annual Metis pilgrimage that has occurred every July for the past 200 years.

Most of the elders moved to Prince George from Saskatchewan in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s to work in British Columbia’s logging industry. Today, Prince George has a Metis population of about 4,000, Evans estimates.

While they’re separated by the Rockies from most of their brethren, BC’s Metis continue traditions associated with the hybrid culture, formed through intermarriage between First Nation and European settlers. The elders in the film grew up speaking a creole and dancing the jig during celebrations.

Evans hopes the project serves as a time capsule to capture Metis traditions for future generations, as a “participatory documentary” that gives elders a voice, and as a scholarly work that captures the complexity of contemporary Metis life.

One segment features a Metis man recalling how, as a boy, he travelled to the Lac St-Anne pilgrimage in the back of a pickup, under a frame of willow branches covered with canvas. The man tells this story standing in front of a teepee built not far from one of British Columbia’s biggest cities, Victoria.

This mix of old and new captures for Evans the subtle relationship Metis have with their history.

The installation consists of eight hours of footage, selected from about 36 hours of film. Picking your own path through the segments means “you’re creating your own documentary,” said Foster.

In a way, the installation’s decentralized structure resembles Canada’s Metis diaspora, he said.

The Prince George Metis Elders Documentary Project opens tonight with a reception at 5 p.m. An artist talk by Foster will be held at 6 p.m. The show continues from March 20 to 26 at the Old Fire Hall from noon to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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