In June 1981, Minister of Fisheries Lucien Lessard authorised more than 300 Quebec Provincial Police (QPP) to raid the Restigouche Reserve in relation to restrictions placed upon the indigenous peoples by the Department of Fisheries: the point of contention was salmon fishing rights; the Mi’kmaq claimed their right to fish salmon six nights a week while the Quebec government attempted to limit their fishing to three days a week as, according to them, their fishing practices were endangering the salmon population. A survey commissioned by the Mi’kmaq and undertaken by Dr. Alan Roy demonstrated the indigenous salmon haul did not exceed 1,200 fish a year, a smaller amount compared to the 1,800 per year that were fished by commercial organisations (Ambroziak). Despite this, the QPP raid occurred and, one of the young people involved was Mi’kmaq Jeff Barnaby:
I remember it distinctly; I had my Superman pajamas on with the burn hole in the arm that I had gotten from an iron. It was the first time I had seen a helicopter. They had come to kick the shit out of some fishermen for not listening after being told when, where, and how much to fish. During the raid, I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck when one of the S.Q. agents smashed me in the face with the barrel of his rifle while running down my uncle. I was four years old, and it’s the first thing I can remember in my life: someone I’ve never met busting my mouth for what I represented. (Truscello and Watchman)
Acclaimed First Nations filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s 45-miunte documentary Incident at Restigouche explores the context and violent events of the QPP raid, utilising a range of archive footage, still imagery, interviews with the Mi’kmaq who were involved and, most importantly, Obomsawin’s interview with Lessard. As this interview progresses, it becomes increasingly heated, steadily revealing potential underlying contexts of the raid, most notably the reluctance to accept and honour tribal sovereignty, a position fuelled by the lingering spectre of French-Canadian colonialism. Sometime after its release, Barnaby would watch this film, commenting
That documentary encapsulated the idea of films being a form of social protest for me, and that’s something that didn’t even dawn on me until I was much older. It started right there with that film. (Strombo)
It is from this position – film as social protest – that Barnaby’s contemporary zombie film Blood Quantum (2019) emerges. Like Romero, Barnaby makes manifest the zombie as political metaphor and uses both zombies and their virulent, violent means of infection to make a comment about the First Nations/Indigenous American experience. For reasons unknown (and in direct reference to Restigouche), recently caught fish are coming back to life. Soon the population of America is subject to a pandemic of national proportions in which all of the dead (not just fish) return to life. While virtually all White Canadians/Americans are susceptible to the virus, First Nations and Indigenous Americans, due to their Blood Quantum – their amount of ancestral blood – are immune. In a startling inversion, the land of the Reservation becomes a stronghold of safety and security, but it also, as a consequence, becomes a place that white Canadians/Americans, both living and undead, once again seek to claim as their own.
An incident at the Reservation’s barricade makes clear a number of Barnaby’s political sensibilities in relation to the metaphoric potential of the figure of the zombie within the wider indigenous experience. The scene begins with an image of a white zombie, in profile, screen right, chained to a barricade of shipping containers, eyes a milky white, its mouth crusted with dark, congealed blood, wearing a dirty, blood-splattered green military uniform and a German Stahlhelm. A brief pause and another figure enters the frame, far left, wearing a black hooded sweater, black leather jacket and a plastic mask covering their face. This image is intercut with a wide shot of the barricaded entrance to the Rez; the figure – Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) rattles a spray can while the zombie can be seen to be propped up on a packing crate, its legs having been cut off. James (K. Devery Jacobs), another indigenous survivor, stands on a picnic bench, hunting rifle slung over her shoulder. Cutting to the profile shot, the film shows Lysol spraying something in red paint onto the zombie’s chest. Barnaby then cuts back to the wide shot of the barricade before cutting back, once more, to Lysol and the zombie in profile: Lysol takes off his plastic mask but his face is still partially covered by a bandana over his nose and mouth; he stands upright and calm, staring directly at the zombie as this monster strains at the chains, attempting to bite him.
As Michael Truscello and Renae Watchman have pointed out, this image of Lysol is a direct visual reference on Barnaby’s part to one of Canada’s most famous photographs, Face to Face (1990), taken by freelance photographer Shaney Komulainen during a stand-off between Canadian Army Private Patrick Cloutier and Anishinaabe warrior Bard Larocque during the Oka Crisis (15). The similarities between the two images are striking, with the subjects’ posture and clothing being almost identical, ensuring that the meaning of the photograph – a dramatic instance of indigenous resistance in the face of white Canadian authority and government – is relayed back into the film. Here Lysol stands, the indigenous warrior, proudly defiant against the deathly threat; strong and unafraid, he stands guard at the border of the Rez, ready to protect his people and his land, seemingly regardless of the cost.
Despite the strong similarity, Barnaby has inverted the image, with the indigenous warrior on the left as opposed to the right. Given the German Stahlhelm and the zombie’s position on the right of the frame, the reason for this inversion is perhaps obvious: the zombie not only stands in for the countless hordes of white zombies but also for a much wider threat, that of racism and the Far Right, political positions which have and continue to threaten contemporary First Nation and Indigenous American cultures. This reading is compounded by the image Lysol spray paints onto the zombie, a large, red “W.” While seemingly abstract at first (and merely highlighting the racial difference between the zombie and himself), the purpose of the ‘W’ becomes apparent at the end of the scene as the large barricade doors are closed; a spray-painted slogan can now be read: “If they are White, they bite.” The slogan pointedly refers to the undead status of the white populace but also to the zombies’ innate desire to feed off others. As all these aspects coalesce, Barnaby’s wide shot of the now-closed barricade reminds the audience that the zombie is without legs. In the words of Truscello and Watchman, in “the post-apocalyptic world, xenophobia does not have a leg to stand on (literally)” (15).
As the scene progresses, further political subtext is layered into the action: Lysol shows James a packet of cherry-flavoured sherbet he found and states he thinks he could exchange it for oral sex. Moments later two white characters appear, one a young woman and the second a middle-aged man carrying his daughter wrapped in a blanket. Lysol demands to inspect the girl, who is revealed to be bitten and infected. Lysol responds that the father intends to “plant this infected bitch right on our doorstep,” a reference to the smallpox-infected blankets Colonel Henry Bouquet gave to indigenous peoples, during Pontiac’s War, as a means of early biological warfare (Kiger). This historical reference is later reinforced when James takes the blanket from the father and burns it to prevent infection.
The young woman, Lilith (Natalie Liconti), plays little part in this scene; indeed, she remains contained and concealed until later in the film when it is revealed that she is infected and, while preforming oral sex on Lysol, bites his penis off. This castration triggers Lysol’s revolt against allowing white survivors onto the Rez, but it also functions as a subtle inverted metaphor for the six-year period from the passing of the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act in 1970, which resulted in the sterilisation of an estimated 25% of Indigenous American women of childbearing age, many without informed consent (Theobald). These sterilisations and Lysol’s unwanted castration can be read as an extreme form of colonial control (Theobald), a means by which to contain a culture, prevent a legacy and, ultimately, erase their existence through the removal of their reproductive capabilities and rights. In response to this violence, Lysol unleashes the zombie Lilith on the white survivors, doing unto them what they have, historically and in the present, done to him and his people.
Throughout Blood Quantum, then, Barnaby deftly blends indigenous history and experience with the tropes of zombie cinema, creating a film that is richly layered. In the fight for survival against overwhelming odds, however, Barnaby also finds a metaphor and a mode which allows Blood Quantum to be both a unique zombie film and a text of social protest and resistance.
James Rose is an independent film academic who specialises in Horror and Science Fiction Film and Television. His first authored book, Beyond Hammer: British Horror Cinema since 1970 was published by Auteur in 2009. Since then he has continued to author books and has been widely published in a range of international peer-reviewed edited collections and journals as well as in mainstream magazines.
Ambroziak, Alycia. “Wary peace on Indian reserve prevails in ‘salmon war’ with QuebecAnalysis,” UPI, 13 July 1981.
Blood Quantum, directed by Jeff Barnaby. Canada: Prospector Films, 2019.
Kiger, P.J. “Did Colonists give Infected Blankets to Native Americans as Biological Warfare?” History, 15 November 2018.
Komulainen, Shaney. Face to Face. 1990.
Strombo. “Jeff Barnaby Recalls the Incident at Restigouche,” [online video] 2014.
Theobald, Brianna. “A 1970 Law Led to the Mass Sterilization of Native American Women. That History Still Matters,” Time, 27 November 2019.
Truscello, Michael, and Watchman, Renae. “Blood Quantum and Fourth Cinema: Post- and Paracolonial Zombies.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 2022.