12 docs on Indigenous life in Canada
Indigenous storytellers with incredible tales and activists who are advocating for change
To celebrate Indigenous History Month, watch documentaries that explore the history of the First Peoples of this land, and introduce us to the activists fighting for a more equitable future.
Spirit to Soar
Anishinaabekwe journalist Tanya Talaga travelled to Thunder Bay as a newspaper journalist covering a federal election. While there, she learned the story of the seven First Nations high school students who had died between 2000 and 2011.
Talaga was stunned to discover the deaths were barely covered in the local and national press. She had no doubt that if it had happened in Toronto or Vancouver, the media would have covered the story, and police and the government would have paid attention.
However, the students were First Nations youth, so different standards seemed to apply. Racism kills, especially when it presents as indifference.
In the wake of an inquest into the mysterious deaths of seven students in Thunder Bay, Ont., Talaga set out to create a documentary film examining what, if anything, has changed since the students died.
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.
Nicco Montano won the UFC Women's Flyweight Championship at 28, becoming the organization's first Native titleholder.
But tonsillitis and a foot injury slowed her down and before she could defend her title against Valentina Shevchenko, Montano needed to drop 30 pounds in less than two months.
It's an agonizing battle as she denies herself food, salt, and even water before ending up in the hospital.
In a revealing look at combat sports, 'Warrior Spirit' questions the controversial practice of intense weight loss and its damaging effect on even the fittest of athletes.
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.
In this classic, award-winning documentary, Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond takes an entertaining look at the portrayal of North American Indigenous people in film.
Featuring hundreds of clips from old classics as well as recent releases and interviews with Clint Eastwood, Robbie Robertson and Jim Jarmusch, this film looks at how the myth of 'the Injun' has influenced the world's understanding - and misunderstanding - of Natives.
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.