12 docs on Indigenous life in Canada
Indigenous storytellers with incredible tales and activists who are advocating for change
To celebrate National Indigenous History Month, here are some documentaries that explore the history of the First Peoples of this land, and introduce us to the activists fighting for a more equitable future.
Nahanni: River of Forgiveness
Herb Norwegian, Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations, has always wanted to follow the route of the ancestors who spent the winters hunting and trapping near the headwaters of the great Nahanni River in a moose skin boat.
He enlists 12 Dehcho Dene, expert boat builders and bushmen among them, to set off on a 500 km journey through a magnificent landscape. As with many ambitious adventures, not everything goes to plan. They paddle along in a boat so riddled with holes it wasn't certain they would reach their final destination.
As they travel down the Nahanni, portage around Virginia Falls, and whistle past canyon walls 1200 metres high, they discover the spiritual power of nature to heal the soul.
Jordan River Anderson: The Messenger
When five-year-old Jordan River Anderson died with a rare muscle disorder known as Carey-Fineman-Ziter syndrome in 2005, he had spent all of his young life in hospital. The Federal and Manitoban governments argued for years over who was responsible for his home-care costs.
He was never able to talk or walk and was kept on a ventilator until he died at Winnipeg Children's Hospital, almost 1,000 km away from his family's home in Norway House First Nation.
In an exposé of blatant governmental disregard, award-winning Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin documents the long struggle of Indigenous activists demanding the government recognize and enforce "Jordan's Principle" — the promise that no First Nations children would experience inequitable access to government-funded health, social, and educational services again.
Anishnaabe comedian and activist Ryan McMahon takes us to his hometown of Fort Frances, Ont., where the main drag is called "Colonization Road." Similarly-named streets exist all over Northern Ontario and Manitoba, and they aren't named that by accident. These roads were literally built to bring colonizers to the area. McMahon looks at the legacy these roads have left on the region's First Nations communities and asks what "decolonization" means in a place where colonization is so deeply embedded.
As a small child, Nakuset was taken from her home in Thompson, Manitoba and adopted into a Jewish family in Montreal. She was part of the Sixties Scoop, a generation of Indigenous children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities throughout Canada, and adopted into settler homes.
Told through personal archives, Nakuset details the abuse and confusion she suffered as a child and chronicles how, along with the help of her Bubby (Jewish grandmother), she was able to reclaim her identity and become a powerful advocate for her people.
nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up
In August of 2016, Colten Boushie, a young Cree man from Red Pheasant First Nation, was shot by Gerald Stanley on Stanley's farm outside of Biggar, Sask. The subsequent trial raised questions about the role racism in Canada's legal system.
A multiple award-winner, the film won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary at the 2020 Canadian Screen Awards.
Cottagers and Indians
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning author and humourist who lives on Ontario's Curve Lake First Nation. For generations, it was a peaceful place where residents managed to avoid conflict with "settlers."
That is, until Hayden Taylor's friend James Whetung began cultivating wild rice on the Trent–Severn Waterway. A wild renegade in a fanboat, Whetung has also sown discontent in the area. The Indigenous grandmothers whom he feeds, the water scientists with whom he consults, and those who buy his commercial product love the rice. The cottage owners, whose waterways are becoming clogged with plants, have concerns about the scale of his seeding. And as their property values dive, they're getting louder.
There are big issues to consider: food sovereignty, property rights, restricted access to capital on reserves, racism, privilege, contract law and Indigenous poverty. These matters go far beyond Pigeon Lake, touching the lives of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous landowners across Canada.
For decades, animal rights activists have targeted Canada's seal hunt, decrying it as cruel, barbaric, and unnecessary. For Inuit communities in Canada's north, however, seal meat is an important part of the traditional diet and selling seal skins provides a crucial source of income.
Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril visits these communities to talk about how the bans on seal products have affected them, then follows a group of Inuit youth as they go to Europe to lobby the European Union for change.
"Elders are the most vulnerable to this pandemic and they are our knowledge keepers."
In Sarain Fox's Anishinaabe culture, women lead the family. Her auntie, Mary Bell, is the oldest surviving matriarch, and she holds the family's history: the stories, the trauma, the truth. Mary is a residential school survivor who worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the stories of other survivors.
The Indigenous way is to sit with elders while they live. And Fox's job, as the youngest in her family, is to document her auntie's stories before they are lost.
Trapped in a Human Zoo
In 1880, Abraham Ulrikab, an Inuit man from Labrador, was convinced to go to Europe to be displayed in a human zoo. He was motivated by a need to pay off a debt, as well as a desire to see Europe. He brought with him his wife, his two daughters, and another young man from the community. According to his diary, Ulrikab regretted the decision almost immediately. He and his family never returned home.
More than 130 years later, Labrador Inuit leader Johannes Lampe goes to Europe to retrace Abraham's steps, find out what happened to the family, and hopefully bring their remains home.
The Pass System
For over 60 years, the Canadian government denied many Indigenous peoples the basic freedom to leave their reserves without a pass.
The 'pass' system was introduced on the cusp of the North West Rebellion, led by Louis Riel, and was meant to be temporary, used to prevent another uprising. In fact, it was enforced until the 1940s and kept First Nations parents from their children in residential schools, from visiting relatives, from access to towns and cities, and from enjoying the basic freedom of mobility that every settler Canadian took for granted.
In a five year investigation, Nehiyaw, Saulteaux, Dene, Ojibwe and Niitsitapi elders tell their stories of living under and resisting the system to illuminate the hidden history of racial segregation.
Indictment: The Crimes of Shelly Chartier
In 2013, gossip and sports columnists unexpectedly turned their eyes to Easterville, a tiny community in northern Manitoba where most of the residents are members of the Chemawawin Cree Nation. A local woman,Shelly Chartier, had orchestrated a series of elaborate catfishing scams that had ensnared, among other people, NBA power forward Chris "Birdman" Andersen.
Indictment goes beyond the salacious headlines and dives into the how and why of the scandal. To understand Chartier and her crimes, one has to understand the history of her people, her family, the community of Easterville, and how Indigenous people are treated by the Canadian justice system. In this case, and in so many cases, the perpetrator is also a victim.
Stories from the Land
Inspired by Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon's hit podcast series, this collection of short documentaries delve into the connections that First Nations people have between land, culture and community. From a humble bowl of corn soup and the man who is keeping its tradition alive, to the story of a family that holds the last commercial fishing licenses on their lake, Stories from the Land is a celebration of First Nations cultures, past and present.