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12 films on Indigenous life in Canada

Indigenous storytellers with incredible tales and activists who are advocating for change

Indigenous storytellers with incredible tales and activists who are advocating for change

A woman wearing an indigenous headdress, Nico Mantanno, Charlie BIttern

CBC Gem is home to dozens of programs that explore the history of the First Peoples of this land, and introduce us to the activists fighting for a more equitable future. Watch now for free.

The Pretendians

Esteemed novelist Joseph Boyden, acclaimed film director Michelle Latimer and former University of Saskatchewan professor Carrie Bourassa have all made front-page news in recent years for the same reason: each is alleged to have been a "pretendian."

The term "pretendian" has come to refer to someone who claims distant Indigenous heritage that doesn't stand up to deeper scrutinyBut why would someone fake an Indigenous identity?

The latest film featuring Anishinaabe author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor follows his cross-Canada journey and reveals what really lies behind this explosive issue.

Bimibatoo-Win: Where I Ran

Charlie Bittern is a residential school survivor from Berens River First Nations in Manitoba. In 1967, when he was 19 years old, the principal of Birtle Indian Residential School forced him to run 80 km through a brutal blizzard. It took almost nine hours.

55 years later, Bittern embarks on the same journey – but this time, he's surrounded by his family.

Bittern hopes that retracing his steps will help him heal from his experience, while spreading awareness for all residential school survivors and all the children who never made it home.

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.

How to Lose Everything

From instructions on how to survive tragedy, to parallels between two Scottish and Inuit communities, to a bear named Jesus, the five stories in How to Lose Everything span nations, languages and perspectives on heartache.

Created by Christa Couture and produced with Michelle St. John in collaboration with CBC Arts, each film is written and animated by a different pair of Indigenous artists — including Archer Pechawis, an artist and member of Mistawasis First Nation; and Megan Kyak-Monteith, who is originally from Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet, Nunavut) — representing Cree, Ojibwe, Ktunaxa, Inuit, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Atikamekw and Métis nations.

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.

Warrior Spirit

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.

Becoming Nakuset

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.

War for the Woods

For many Canadians, their introduction to clearcut logging came from news reports about the Clayoquot Sound protests back in 1993. Known as the "War in the Woods," some 12,000 people showed up on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island to join the blockades against logging companies.

While much of the area was spared, clearcutting, instead of more sustainable logging methods, remained the status quo elsewhere in B.C. and old growth forests have continued to fall. Today, precious little old growth remains, and First Nations and environmentalists are again taking a stand.

War for the Woods follows a new generation's campaign against logging that once again has captured the attention of Canadians, including Stephanie Kwetásel'wet Wood, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh journalist living and writing in North Vancouver, who reports on Indigenous rights and the natural world.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Starwalker

A musical tribute to musician, visual artist, human rights activist, Truth and Reconciliation educator, and Oscar-winning composer Buffy Sainte-Marie featuring performers inspired by her life's work, including Crystal Shawanda, Leela Gilday, Logan Staats, Marie-Mai, Sarah Midanik, ShoShona Kish, Tom Jackson, William Prince, and Jeremy Dutcher.


"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.

Reel Injun

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.

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.


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