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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Aaju Peter’s life is the focus of the documentary Twice Colonized

BY Joshua Janke Sep 3, 2023

Aaju: “I don’t want to leave.”
Friend: “It’s just a physical place.”
Aaju: “But it’s my place.”
Friend: “You must love the lake but not the cottage.” 

For the opening of Montreal’s 33rd First Peoples Festival, head organizer André Dudemaine honoured director Lin Alluna and protagonist Aaju Peter by screening Twice Colonized as the festival’s first event. 

“The number three is supposed to be the perfect number,” Dudemaine said in his opening comments. “As we know, the triangle is the form of nature, with all sides equal and strong in solidarity. When we discover the corpses of our children, this is a tragic time. But this is also a time where I hear the Elders saying that their children are coming back to them, that the children are coming home.” 

Last year, Dudemaine’s speech focused on the Indigenous power that is produced within artistic collaboration and community, while this year’s speech set a more activist tone. 

“We are already together,” he stated. “Now we must understand that we are together on a mission to change the world. You are no longer spectators, we are partners. So, look inside yourself and move forward with us.” 

On that note, the microphone was passed to lawyer and activist Aaju Peter. A Greenlandic Inuk, Peter was sent to school in Denmark where she endured cultural assimilation similar to Canada’s residential schools. 

As Peter welcomed the audience, she spoke her first words of thanks in Inuktitut, pausing briefly to survey the looks of confusion in the crowd. “This is how it feels when you speak French around me,” she said with a chuckle, switching to English. “I just try to laugh or clap at the good times like ‘Oh, that sounded important.’”

Creating this serious yet lighthearted moment can be credited to Peter’s deep emotional honesty with herself, something that is highlighted in the film. She is not afraid to swear, cry, scream or dance, and she is definitely not afraid to relive her past and confront present-day colonialism. If she feels it, she says it. 

Her self-confidence, grounded in the profound life story she possesses, allows her message to be conveyed in an impactful, yet digestible way. Peter says her life experiences are what gives her the power to change the world for future generations and the hardest part is finding the courage to express these lived experiences to the masses.

Over five years in the making, Twice Colonized opens with the credit – Directed by Lin Alluna, Lived by Aaju Peter – foreshadowing a creation that touches Peter’s secret and personal life. This is more than a documentary, it’s an intimate look into the emotions, experiences and beliefs of a woman on a mission to change the world. 

Addressing the audience, Peter said, “I’ve been in many documentaries before, but this time it was personal, the story was my own. I was sent to school in Denmark, lost my language and now, I want to show the world that the Danes were not any better. We were also treated badly, forced to become white and lose our language and culture. 

“Danish assimilation was no better than Canadian colonialism [and] the Danes stole our childhood and families…our hope from us,” she continued, marking how she “was made to feel different” in the many schools she attended and the foster families she lived with. 

But as she pointed out in her speech, “You can’t define me if I have already found myself.” 

In the film, one of Peter’s Danish friends ponders, “You call yourself Inuit and you are smoking and drinking and you like coffee.” She cuts him off before he can continue. “No fuck you, I want to be in the modern world but from our perspective, not the one that you have imposed on us. 

“When they tell us that we belong in the past, I just look down at my body, at my existence and tell myself that I do not belong there.” 

As Peter stood in front of the audience moments before her life was relived on screen, her assertive yet calm voice and warm smile revealed an individual proud to share a story that she has been waiting to tell. 

The documentary is Peter’s first step in this journey of sharing the story of her life with the world, but she says a book is on the way. However, it is “going very slow” because “there are so many things I must do in each day just to be who I am meant to be.” 

At one point, the camera pans in on Peter writing the first draft of her book. At the top of the page she writes, “Is it possible to change the world and mend your wounds at the same time?” The time and emotional effort spent making this film cannot be ignored and this moment highlights the dilemma that comes with exposing one’s life to the world. 

Peter spoke of the fragility that involved all forms of artistic expression presented. “At this festival, it is important that when we [Indigenous people] welcome you, you accept this welcome and receive everything offered with open arms and gratitude,” she said.

Then she pointed at her Danish cameraman and said with a warm laugh, “That’s my colonizer right there.” But that’s what Peter does in this documentary, visually and verbally – stir up the past because it makes her feel good, even if it makes others uncomfortable. 

“Non-Indigenous people, they think we enjoy looking back but it’s hard for us,” Peter says while talking with her brother after visiting their childhood school. “We were born in straitjackets. One day I thought, why am I continuing to wear this straitjacket of the past?” 

Peter says that before she could make Twice Colonized, she had to focus on discovering who she was, who she used to be, and who she wanted to become. 

Using the metaphor of a house to represent her body and mind, she explained: “You could be fighting blindfolded without knowing where the exit is, but if you learn all the layout of the home, you could still be blindfolded but you would be able to find your way through. The adversity we experience becomes educative when we take the time to look deep inside ourselves.”

After the screening, Peter returned for questions and then shared a closing comment of hope. “As Indigenous peoples we all speak the same language. And I mean this in the way we think. When we want to further the lives of our future children nobody is going to say ‘No, we aren’t going to do that for our grandchildren.’ We want a better future, not only for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but for all grandchildren in the future. When you put it like that, to do for our grandchildren, that’s an easy prayer. They don’t even have to think twice about it.” 

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Joshua Janke lives in Montreal and is studying English Literature at Mcgill University. He is passionate about writing, social justice, and creating art.