Is a bold new era on the horizon for northern Canada's filmmaking industry?

With films like Polaris and Slash/Back drumming up buzz on the international circuit, Northern creatives weigh in on how to keep the region's burgeoning scene growing.

Northern creatives weigh in on how to keep the region's burgeoning scene growing

A camera operator positions a camera as another crew member looks on, both ankle-deep in snow.
Yukon camera operator Marty O'Brien preps for a shot on Polaris. (Little Dipper Films)

As far as the small, scrappy, and ambitious world of filmmaking in northern Canada is concerned, this year has been a pretty stellar one. Two big-budget features — Kirsten Carthew's Polaris (a dystopian thriller, dubbed "Mad Max of the Arctic") and Nyla Innuksuk's Slash/Back (equal parts coming-of-age and alien invasion flick), filmed in Yukon and Nunavut respectively — have managed to drum up considerable buzz on the international festival circuit, melding the unparalleled splendour of the Arctic landscape with some kick-ass action.

And the best part? Both have Northern filmmakers at the helm, with locals making up significant portions of the cast and crew. Coming from a region with a screen sector still in its fledgling stages, these are truly worthy accomplishments. It also begs the question: could this be the dawning of a bold new era, where Northerners are empowered to share stories on the big screen?

Huw Eirug in Iqaluit thinks it could be. As he tells CBC Arts, it's an exciting time for what most aptly described as an "evolving and developing" industry. 

The CEO of the Nunavut Film Development Corporation has watched artists of all experience levels come into their own — from first-time feature directors like Innuksuk, to seasoned veterans like the legendary Zacharias Kunuk, whose animated short Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman's Apprentice won a Canadian Screen Award last April. "It's wonderful to see both sides of the coin happening," he says. "You've got the younger generation, then you've still got the older generation still interested in creating content. People like that, they inspire the next generations." 

Add to this well of existing creativity the fact that two new Inuktut-language television channels (Uvugat TV and Inuit TV) have launched in the past two years — offering more space for up-and-coming filmmakers to cut their cinematic teeth and get involved — and "suddenly, it doesn't take a genius to work out there's going to be quite an increase in demand for content," Eirug continues. "It's a huge opportunity, and one which will be grasped in the next couple of years, I'm sure."

He adds: "It's all about having the opportunity to create, and you can only have an opportunity to create if it can be shown somewhere."

Having few places to showcase their work is an obstacle that's long plagued Northern filmmakers. Geographically removed from larger production centres like Toronto and Vancouver, they're often underdogs in the fight for attention from broadcasters and distributors who will platform their projects. 

That's partly what makes the birth of new opportunities like the Northern Canada Producer Accelerator so exciting, says Yellowknifer Jen Walden. Hosting its initial cohort of 10 creators from the NWT and Yukon this past year (with Walden among them), the program was uniquely designed to facilitate important industry connections within broadcasters such as APTN, CBC, and Bell, and open new pathways for Northerners to get things off the ground.

Still frame from the film Polaris. Overhead shot of a bear and a girl rolling in the snow.
Mama Bear (Agee) and Sumi (Viva Lee) roll in the snow in the film Polaris. (Little Dipper Films)

When Walden first entered film seven years, it was different; she had to opt for a craftier approach if she wanted to get something made. After writing a short film for fun, she pulled together a small budget from her own pocket and got friends in town to help with music, design, and production, then released the finished product on Vimeo. The following year, Painted Girl was one of nine chosen from across the country to air on the CBC's Short Film Faceoff in 2016 — a moment Walden credits as "catapulting" her desire for a filmmaking career. 

From there, "I kind of just jumped in and got involved in lots of things that were happening," Walden says, and that can-do attitude quickly paid-off. Eventually, she was able to make her own debut feature, Elijah and the Rock Creature, a fantastical tale of friendship set in the wilds of Wood Buffalo National Park. It premiered in Yellowknife in 2018 before heading south to festivals like FIFEM in Montreal and Julien Dubuque International Film Festival in Iowa. 

I say, 'This story takes place in Yellowknife up on a tundra,' then ears are perking up. People are turning their eyes north to see what's up here.- Jen Walden, filmmaker

Now, the artist is in the process of developing a television series with the Canadian Media Fund and a producer from Alberta. She's also headed to B.C. at the end of the month, where she'll pitch her second feature to a panel of judges and studio executives as part of the Whistler Power Pitch Competition.

"There's been a lot of excitement about these projects, and that really speaks to the fact that there is an overall interest in what's happening in the North," Walden says. "I've had people ask me [where it takes place], and I say, 'This story takes place in Yellowknife up on a tundra,' then ears are perking up. People are turning their eyes north to see what's up here." 

For Walden, this interest makes the North a great spot to be as a filmmaker — a sentiment echoed by Whitehorse filmmaker Max Fraser, who served as a producer on Polaris. When it comes to making movies, there's nowhere else he'd rather be.

"I mean, in this business, it all comes down to story, and we've got many to tell [up here]," he says. "So there's a lot of potential there."

He sees his own film as a testament to this growing momentum. With its $2.5 million budget, Polaris is the biggest feature ever shot in the Yukon that's majority-owned by a Northern production company. Yukoners and people from the NWT also took up key roles within the cast, and the set, design, and art departments. 

"Some other pictures have come here, but they've been owned by production companies from somewhere else," Fraser explains. "So Polaris really is a first in terms of being Northern-led, and it's a real credit to everybody who worked on it. I hope it's an inspiration to people in the screen industry to go forward and do more."

Still, he warns, Northerners will have to contend with "substantial challenges." For all the improvements over the past decade, the fact remains that it's hard to be a filmmaker in a small town — especially when that small town is in the Arctic. 

Just consider the logistical side of things. The North's perpetually spotty internet and a lack of professional studio space means many creators have to travel south to complete post-production. Meanwhile, the small population base makes for less funding pots, and finding experienced crews — then generating enough employment so they'll stick around — can seem a near Herculean task.

Fraser and Carthew came up against that last roadblock when developing Polaris. The pair formed their own company, Little Dipper Films, to make the movie, but quickly found they didn't have the expertise to see it through alone. In the end, they had to bring in producing partners from Ontario and Québec.

"We couldn't have done it without that kind of partnership," Fraser says. "In the Yukon, we have a lot of talented people, but we don't necessarily have the full suite of personnel that you need to make a feature film. And you do need experience."

It also means when the occasional southern production does come to town (like the new Hilary Swank series Alaska Daily on ABC, which was partly shot in the Yellowknives Dene community of Dettah earlier this year), they almost never hire anybody local.

A group of actors laugh together in the snow on the set of the film Polaris.
Local actors relaxing on the set of Polaris. (Little Dipper Films)

To long-time Yellowknife filmmaker Jay Bulckaert, an important piece of the solution to that problem is ensuring Northern creators are involved in a project right from the beginning, especially when it comes to writing and producing. Not only would this bring more stories from the region to the fore, but it would allow those creators the necessary opportunities to develop their skills. He cites filmmakers like Innuksuk, Carthew, and Walden as prime examples. 

"We must start by getting locals to develop their own content so that experience can happen over and over and over, and people can start practising in a paid career setting," he says. Thankfully, the NWT Film Commission launched the Producer Incentive Pilot Program in 2021 to fund local filmmakers during the pre-development and development stages. It's a program that shows "radical promise" to grease the North's filmmaking gears, Bulckaert says — though, he notes with some distress, funding for that program isn't guaranteed past this fiscal year. 

Bulckaert spends a good deal of energy trying to widen that net of opportunity himself, namely through co-founding a production company called Artless Collective with his creative partner-in-crime Pablo Saravanja. The pair ran the city's beloved Dead North Film Festival, a circumpolar film-making event dedicated to horror (and of which both Carthew and Innuksuk are alumni), until going on hiatus in 2020. The following year, they opened a Yellowknife studio to work on their own projects and provide a space for others to do the same. 

"We've become a very community-focused filmmaking studio," Bulckaert explains. "A rising tide lifts all boats, and that's effectively what we've been trying to do over the years, fighting to start involving people on the projects that we're doing so people are professionally trained, including ourselves. I'm excited to see how our company progresses. Hopefully, playing a strong role in terms of inspiring others and facilitating the production of bigger and better projects."

Still frame from the film Slash/Back. Actors Tasiana Shirley and Alexis Wolfe crouch in the grass.
Tasiana Shirley as Maika and Alexis Wolfe as Jesse in a scene from SLASH/BACK by Nyla Innuksuk. (Mixtape SB Productions Inc)

Of course, there's a lot more work to do to convince the powers that be that the North's film industry should be one for major investment and attention. But with the region becoming hotter and hotter on screens worldwide, filmmakers here are steadfast as ever in making it happen. Nothing about us without us, they say. 

"The more people find a way to truthfully represent it on screen in a professional and visionary way, the more interested the world is going to continue to be in the North," Bulckaert says. "And that requires people who live here to be telling their own stories."

Walden seconds this. "Change doesn't happen overnight, [but] I think things are really percolating…like, it's happening, and people are excited. I feel privileged to be part of that."


Meaghan Brackenbury is a reporter with CBC in Yellowknife on Treaty 8 territory. You can reach her at

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