Hollywood’s Avatar Imitates Ontario Mining/Aboriginal Conflicts – by Juan Carlos Reyes

Juan Carlos Reyes is the organizer of the annual Learning Together conference and an aboriginal consultant with Efficiency.ca. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian aboriginal people. This column was originally published in May 2010.

There still may be a few among you who have yet to see James Cameron’s epic blockbuster Avatar.  My advice: Go see it! The movie offers an interesting vision of colonial mentality — something to which many Aboriginal people will relate. Here’s my take on it: White Americans travel to a distant planet to mine an invaluable mineral.

They hire researchers and scientists to placate the indigenous population (called the Na’vi) by socially infiltrating the community and attempting to convince them to move to more “suitable” locations. When the ruse fails, the mining company gets fed up and redefines the term “explosive climax.” The hero of the story, a white American military recruit, switches sides and helps lead the Na’vi to victory.

James Cameron has received a lot of heat over this movie. But I think that Avatar was developed brilliantly. Some reviews claim that Cameron’s idea was to portray the Black or Muslim or indigenous experience. Regardless of his motivation, the movie succeeds in its depiction of the way industrialized nations have “taken over” in many developing countries.

This is why many cultures can relate so well to a movie like Avatar. I spoke with two close friends — John Cutfeet from the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation and Shannin Metatawabin, manager of Aboriginal affairs for De Beers Canada — to see what they thought of Avatar’s message.

John Cutfeet, who was implicated in the whole KI ordeal (I have written in the past about the KI incident), had this to say: “You would think that the producer of Avatar had been watching what has been happening to the indigenous population worldwide, including the Far North of Ontario in places like Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Attawapiskat and the Ring of Fire, and in places like Oka.

In Oka, we saw the military descend upon a people who would not accept the expansion of a golf course in their traditional lands. In Attawapiskat, community members remain homeless while funds from an Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) sit in trust. Meanwhile, they’re living in poverty. In KI, a company walked away with $5 million, leaving nothing in their wake except financial deprivation and instability as the community struggles to get back on stable footing. These are not things most people would expect to happen in a so-called world leader like Canada.”

Cutfeet added that “Aboriginal populations, just like in the movie, are expected to stand by or to relocate while their way of life is destroyed and their homelands plundered, all for the purpose of driving the economic engine. In the end, these communities see little to no benefit for their people. The tactics employed by the mining industry in Canada are not very different from those represented in Avatar. Businesses go through the motions of working with the people but are fully prepared to turn up the pressure to ensure compliance. The industry often characterizes the people of the land as dangerous or hostile, and they have no qualms about ‘bringing out the big guns’ when necessary.” 

Shannin Metatawabin offered similar words of wisdom. “There is a history and a need to educate, even if through a movie, in order to highlight the very real methodologies employed by some to dominate indigenous people. Junior and major mining companies are plentiful and do have different views on indigenous, environmental and social responsibilities. No two are alike, and there are those that work hard to change these perceptions by instituting policies that address these concerns. That approach, of course, is a sustainable way of thinking.”

In conclusion, public policy, communication and real partnerships with communities will help to ensure meaningful movement in this industry. The harder you push, the deeper communities will dig in to protect what it is theirs by right to protect. Pushing, therefore, is no longer an option. You must consult.