Creators that inspire: Meet Sonia Bonspille Boileau
This article, along with six other portraits of creators that inspire, was first published in the CMF 2022 Annual Report.
When producers at ICI Radio-Canada Télé first met Sonia Bonspille Boileau to discuss her project Pour toi Flora, supported by the Canada Media Fund, their reaction was a spontaneous “Finally!” Although Indigenous residential schools have been the subject of much media scrutiny over the last few years, the broadcaster was waiting for the right creators to bring this incredibly delicate subject to the screen. Co-founder of Gatineau-based production company Nish Media, Boileau has written the first Indigenous French-language drama production in the history of Radio-Canada.
“I am incredibly proud,” admits the 42-year-old director and screenwriter.
“The entire process, everything that we lived through, is even stronger, more incredible, and more rewarding than one story can capture. And yet, I’ve seen how much Pour toi Flora has touched people. I’ve received hundreds of messages congratulating us, and a lot of them came from non-Indigenous people. As difficult as it is to look back on these events, it’s part of an important healing process. It’s applying a balm to a still open wound.”
After seeing how the media handled the Oka Crisis in 1990, the urge to create films started to grow in Boileau, the daughter of a Francophone Québécois father and an Indigenous mother from the Kanien:keha’ka Nation. At just 11 years old, Kanehsatake-born Boileau could sense a gap between what was happening in her community and what was being shown on television. The documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance by Alanis Obomsawin, which she saw as a teenager, further confirmed her yearning to tell stories that spoke to her. For Boileau, the push toward directing is as much a social imperative as it is artistic.
“I would never claim to be the spokesperson for my entire community, but I get the sense that most Indigenous artists end up becoming one regardless. With all the testimonies that I receive, I feel I have a responsibility toward a lot of people who don’t have the chance, the tools, the opportunities, nor the platforms to tell their own stories.”
Giving a voice to those who don’t have one is something she’s been doing since the start of her career by dealing with sensitive subjects such as identity, missing Indigenous women, and now, residential schools. Having received awards for her films (Le Dep, Rustic Oracle) and documentaries (Last Call Indian), the filmmaker believes that a drama series like Pour toi Flora has a greater chance of raising awareness in the larger population.
“Instead of delivering information, the way you do in a documentary, you’re delivering emotion. You create empathy for the characters. And when the audience sees itself in the characters, there’s a much higher chance of having empathy for these people in real life.”
Boileau has also brought many Indigenous actors to the screen, from experienced actors she has known for years to children she discovered by travelling to different communities and powwows.
With Pour toi Flora, diversity is also present behind the screen. The artist has tasked herself with being a mentor for young First Nations craftspeople so they can build experience in cinema. “I’m proud to create bridges between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. When there are individuals from our communities in every single department, that changes the way we work. It’s easier to address such delicate subjects.”
It still took several years between the birth of the project and its completion. To develop the series, Boileau first drew from her grandfather’s lived experience, as well as that of his sisters, who knew firsthand the impact of residential schools. From there, she surrounded herself with a circle of survivors from whom she sought approval throughout each step of the production. The same group also helped translate the series into Anishinaabemowin. And Boileau believes that the act of sharing their story allowed several of them to take huge steps on their healing journey.
After shining the spotlight on such heavy subjects over the last few years, Boileau now wants to try lighter, more luminous, and more wide-ranging worlds with, dare we say it, a bit of humour. “It was necessary to help people understand what we’ve lived through, but now that it’s out there, I feel we can show other sides of our existence and our culture. Let the creative side fully shine through. I’m really looking forward to exploring that.”