All of us at Tea & Bannock have agreed to prioritize mentorship as part of our collective work. In considering this, I sat down with my mentor, Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh. She has made several documentary films including: Women in the Shadows, Keepers of the Fire, Kuper Island: Return to the Healing Circle, The Story of the Coast Salish Knitters and Finding Dawn.
I met Christine at the University of Victoria. Her class was the place I felt most challenged, seen, and heard. She hired me as her to intern on the documentary Finding Dawn. Over the past dozen years, she’s been my professor, my boss, my mentor, my friend, and I’m proud to say she is now my Mother-in-law, and the best Kookum in the world.
Who better to ask about my new role, than from my own mentor?
Christine at her Kitchen Table
[JW] You’re been an active mentor, I can attest to that. You’ve spoken to me before about the importance of mentorship, and how it’s not common. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about why you think that is.
[CW] I don’t know why it isn’t more common than it is.
I had some really important mentors in my life. When I think back on the directions that my life has gone in. Those people stand at the head of those forks in the road, they really do.
The first one was John Oser who was my film teacher. A very unconventional film teacher, but that was his role. He was the person that made me want to be a filmmaker. He was this completely unconventional teacher. You showed films, and then you stood at the front, and then you just talked passionately about them.
On campus at the time, there was this buzz that went around, about this old man (OLD MAN! He was as old as I am now!) in the Fine Arts department that was teaching these film courses on Wednesday mornings. and anybody could go, because it was in ‘Dark Hall’, and it was dark, and nobody knew who was there. So you would just go, and find a dark seat in this auditorium, and watch movies, and listen to this guy talk. And I just was in love and I never went back to English class. I mean that was IT.
[JW] Is that what you were doing, an English degree?
[CW] Yes, I was in school to do an English degree and I just never went back. I just sat there and listened to him.
[JW] What was he like?
[CW] He was an amazing man. He was one of these people who saw good things everywhere. He would look at a students’ really clichéd, deeply flawed little film effort and always find something wonderful in it. Of course they are going to have things wrong with them, but that’s not what you focus on. You focus on the wonderful, and you make them think they are capable of wonderful. He taught me that.
He had worked on the first sound films in Germany in the early 1930s. He had been prescient enough to leave Germany when he saw what Nazism was bringing. He and his wife were both Jewish, and had moved to the safety of New York.
There he worked on a lot of war propaganda films for the Office of War Information in the United States. He was a film editor. He brought this bigger world to me. He wasn’t an academic. He came to the University of Regina because one of his radical students in New York, also Jewish, also a Marxist, had come to the University of Regina as a radical sociology professor. They all ended up in this little prairie city that didn’t know what hit it! Even though Saskatchewan had this pretty radical history of it’s own.
He encouraged me to come just spend time with him and learn from him. He had this ratty little office in the basement of Dark hall. We all just hung out down there, a group of us, 5 or 6 young men, and me. I was the only woman. There was film making equipment and we could just do anything we wanted with it.
John Oser editing
He taught me editing on an old Moviola. [laughs] That was one of those stand up double system things that you see in the movies that has been around since the thirties. He taught me how to edit on this thing just because he wanted to. Because he thought I had a talent for editing, which I ended up doing, once I left there.
[JW] Was there anyone else?
[CW] I also had a dance teacher – in my late teens and early twenties. Her name was Marianne Livant and she has since passed. She was a really important mentor in my life. She was this really smart aleck, loud mouthed, super intense, super creative, Jewish woman from New York.
She was a modern dancer and she set up this modern dance workshop studio in Regina, of a sort Regina had never seen . I had been taking ballet lessons and started going to her workshop. It wasn’t so much the dance that changed my life. It was her and hanging around with her family. I mean they just like swore up and down! I can remember her two kids getting kicked out the swimming pool, the public swimming pool in the Wascana Park in Regina because they were so fowl mouthed! Up until then, I didn’t swear all that much, but I learned!
[JW] I can attest to that!
[CW] I learned! I had had this very sort of conservative catholic upbringing, going to a high school run by nuns, all girls, wearing the uniforms – the whole business. And here was this woman who just showed me this other way to be in the world and I wanted that.
We became very close. We would travel and do these little dance performances in small towns in Saskatchewan. Both her and her late husband Bill, were very important people in my life because they kind of busted open my very conservative upbringing and showed me a different way.
It was a tremendously exciting time to be in Regina, at the University. These people just blew open my world! I saw that not only were there other ways to be in the world. But I learned a lot about European history, about American history, about radical politics. That was my radical politics initiation because at that point I was still not “out” as a native person. I was not part of this world as a native person. I was just part of this world as one of Marianne’s dancers and as a student. They were tremendously important people in my life.
So, I had some really wonderful mentors in my life, I really did. And I consider myself so fortunate that they were there. And of course there were people on the films. On every film there was somebody who was a mentor. On Women in the Shadows it was Emma LaRocque. On Keepers of the Fire it was Shirley Bear. On the Kuper Island film it was Delmar Johnnie Seletze. And of course on Finding Dawn there was Janice Acoose and Fay Blaney and everyone on Finding Dawn – you! You were my teacher. There were so many teachers on Finding Dawn. Each film there were just so many people who taught me so much.
[JW] So you came to teaching through a non-traditional route?
[CW] And I had seen many non-traditional teachers! Non-traditional teachers had been my mentors.
[JW] So what made you decide to teach?
[CW] I didn’t go seeking it out. It’s not something I saw myself doing. I was a single mom, in filmmaking. I was living in Toronto and I was editing. I knew that once my son was born, that I wasn’t going to be able to continue to do that because it was a 24/7 job. It wasn’t going to work.So, I went back and finished that degree, fifteen years later. And that was where I met my next mentor. I took a class that was taught by Sylvia Van Kirk and that’s how I met her. That’s how I learned how that little piece of history clicked together that became Women in the Shadows. It was through her, again, mentors!
Students often ask you for career advice, and my career advice is really simple; Pay attention to the things that get put in your path, especially the people that are put in your path. You might think you’re getting this degree that’s going to put you on this path to be XY or Z but other things are always put in your path and it’s up to you do something with that. Those are going to be the things that are ultimately most important in your life. They were in my life.
So mentoring is a really interesting topic, because I think about the people who were put on my journey and I think it’s our responsibility to the future. I actually take it really seriously and I always have. We’re responsible for handing over whatever this piece is that we’ve learned. You know? From our mistakes, from our efforts, we are responsible to pass that on, and then eventually step aside.
Honouring Ceremony and retirement party for Christine Welsh at UVic.
I feel that really intensely now. It’s time for me to be leaving my job at UVic, it’s been really good. Even though it’s not anything I ever would have imagined for myself – to be a university teacher. It taught me a huge amount. I met amazing students who are still part of my life. It’s all been about the relationships that I formed there. But I don’t need to keep doing it indefinitely.
I’m really delighted that another young Indigenous woman scholar is now going to take that place. It’s her time to do that. I had my time there. Just like you’re supposed to lead now. I can provide whatever wisdom I’ve managed to accumulate and opinions (of which you know I will be only too happy to share.) But it is for you to decide where that goes now, because that’s your future. It’s your turn and I’ll be there with you, but you decide where we go next.
[JW] So these careers, these positions in the world don’t need to go on forever… you’re wrapping this one up, you’ve decided to let it go and put down teaching.
[CW] “Put down teaching” I really like that expression!
[JW] What other things are you working on now that aren’t teaching?
[CW] I’m finishing a short documentary called The Thinking Garden about a group of elderly women who have been operating a community garden in Jopi village in Limpopo Province, South Africa since Apartheid. It’s an amazing story of women’s resilience, which is one of the reasons I became involved with it.
It was proposed to me by a colleague at UVic, Elizabeth Vibert. She has been working with these women recording their life stories. You can find more information at Womensfarm.org.
[JW] You’re definitely not retired, just moving onto other things. Now, let me catch up long enough to take your picture! Thank you!
* Disclaimer: Some of the statements have been edited for clarity and continuity.