SIlvaine Zimmermann with a baby, reaching out.My Family Legacy

I lived with my grandparents until I was five, and that had a big influence on me.  My grandmother married a German man who was sent to prison for standing up against Hitler. On the other side, I am the granddaughter of a German woman who married a Jewish man when being Jewish wasn’t exactly popular. Then came WWII.

My father was a teenager when that war ended, but continued the family tradition of non-conformism by joining the German peace movement as a student and after immigrating to Canada became a founding member of “Science For Peace”.  He always stood up against injustice, and whe he did this at work, he risked his livelihood on numerous occasions. I approved of this latter effort, but when he wanted me to join the NDP, I refused, because I felt that 3 vital items were missing from their agenda: the respect for Human Rights of Aboriginal peoples and cultures, the protection of our environment (which I believe to be a related issue), and a commitment to grass-roots democracy.  Unfortunately, although over 40 years have passed since that time, whenever the NDP has actually held some legislative power, I have found that when push came to shove, little had changed. That is why, in my twenties, I became a founding member of the Green Party in Canada.

At 10 years old, the first and last books I read before moving to Canada were Winnetou I,II and III. They were adventure stories with a social twist, in which the ‘Indians’ were the heroes, not the ‘cowboys’. These books contain elegant speeches about injustice, and although theses have been written putting down the author as a paternalistic know-it-all, his books had the effect on me of wanting to stop racism, colonialism, and injustice per se.  When I arrived in Canada,  I noticed that in my grade 6 Canadian History text, ‘Native’ people were referred to as ‘wild savages’, or the ‘red peril’, and similar monikers. I was appalled about this,  but when I called it racism, my teacher just thought I was ‘cute’ and henceforth indulgently called me “my little Minnehaha”.

As a teenager, I used to listen to a CBC program called “Indian Magazine, with Johnny Yesno”. Johnny spoke on the abuse in residential schools, about being whipped for speaking your Native language. I remember a story about a boy fleeing the school and freezing to death, just trying to get home. He talked about a girl committing suicide by setting herself on fire, and reported on how the Quebec government was ramming through the James Bay Hydroelectric Project, against the wishes of the Cree and Inuit who lived there. I heard songs by Buffy Sainte Marie and William Wutnee, the poems of Duke Redbird; I learned that there were brilliant, bitingly witty books written by Native authors like Vine Delorier Jr., and I read them all.
When I was 17 I went to McGill University and immediately joined “The McGill Daily” and “Radio McGill”.  The injustices at James Bay were in full swing, and I started missing math classes so that I could attend court hearings. To help inform my peers  about what I learned, I produced documentary radio program about the James Bay Project, cleverly called “How Long Can You Tread Water”. My friends at Radio McGill thought it was great, but I don’t think it made much of a difference in the student world.

These were the days of Vietnam War protests,  but although they wore beads and headbands,  my fellow students were too busy getting A’s in their exams to give a damn about damming projects, or Native rights. I didn’t want to ‘not get A’s’ in my exams, but it was more important to me to stop the James Bay Project.  I basically put my university future on the line, and finally changed to Trent University, where I enrolled in Canada’s first course teaching a Native language: Anishanabe. It was a smaller, more intimate school, with about 15 Aboriginal students in attendance, who were of course a little more political aware than the average McGillian.screenshot-2015-06-09-22-58-49

I eventually graduated from Concordia University (with honours!?) in Environmental Sciences, and later obtained a Masters degree in Oceanography from McGill. My first real job, after volunteering for Greenpeace for over a year, was to be their ‘Campaigner-to-Stop-Offshore Hydrocarbon-Exploration-on-the-West-Coast’. This is when I made my first film, “Gwaii Haanas”. It shows the underwater and surface life around Haida Gwaii,  making it quite obvious what would be lost if an oil spill occurred there. We won our campaign.

I proceeded to raise my daughter (who is also a film maker), and in my late fifties, after she graduated,  I went back to school to study digital documentary filmmaking. I plan to spend the next thirty years making documentary films.