Documentaries·New on CBC Gem

Carving canoes, reforming the Indian Act, gathering wisdom from elders: 6 films by Indigenous filmmakers

Watch these documentaries about resilience, art and reclaiming history on CBC Gem

Watch these documentaries about resilience, art and reclaiming history on CBC Gem

Sarain Fox wears all black and stands with her Aunt Mary, an small older woman in front of a boarded up building. Fox is holding her arm up over her head in a fist.
Sarain Fox (R) stands with her auntie, Mary Bell. Bell is a residential school survivor who worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the stories of other survivors. Now that she’s an elder, she’s focused on how those stories will live on. In the documentary Inendi, Fox sits with Bell to gather her stories before she's gone. (CBC/Inendi)

CBC Gem is home to dozens of films that tell Indigenous stories, made by Indigenous filmmakers. 

In honour of National Indigenous History Month, this is a small selection of documentaries from across Canada that provide a glimpse into Indigenous life, from culture and art to activism and storytelling. 

Carving canoes to serve communities

Master carver Joe Martin, whose traditional name is Tutakwisnapšiƛ, leans over a seven-metre log that's starting to take the shape of a canoe. He rhythmically pulls a carving tool towards him, creating large wood shavings that fall to the ground.

'Every time I carve a canoe, it’s putting a canoe in the water that’ll serve our communities and families for years to come,' says master carver Joe Martin, whose traditional name is Tutakwisnapšiƛ. (CBC/ƛaʔuukʷiatḥ Dugout Canoe)

Martin started carving canoes in 1984, when he and his family spent three months at a blockade on Meares Island, B.C., to protect the area from logging. 

"The canoe is an act of resistance, plus it is also a symbol of our freedom," he said in the documentary ƛaʔuukʷiatḥ Dugout Canoe.

A seven-metre canoe takes about 420 hours to carve when three people are working on it. For those new to carving, it can take longer. Martin sees it as his responsibility to pass on his knowledge to the next generation.

"Every time I carve a canoe, it's putting a canoe in the water that'll serve our communities and families for years to come," he said. 

10 minutes | Director: Steven Davies

Educating and advocating through documentary film

Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril travelled through the Canadian Arctic to give voice to the Inuit who rely on seals for their livelihood, which is being threatened by animal activists. 

The 2016 documentary Angry Inuk explores a side of the story the activists largely ignore: that of the hunters, craftspeople and families. 

In Angry Inuk, filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril explores how Inuit hunters in remote communities in the High Arctic are negatively affected by animal rights groups protesting the Canadian East Coast seal hunt — which happens hundreds of kilometres away. (CBC/Angry Inuk)

"We have to stop the cultural prejudice that is imposed on us by not being allowed to benefit from our natural surroundings, without having to drill into the ground," Inuk student Cecile Lyall told members of the European Parliament in the documentary. "And that's really all we want as a people."

Using documentary film to educate and advocate for the Inuit, Arnaquq-Baril shows how the seal hunt feeds entire communities.

44 minutes | Director: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril

Fighting sexism in the Indian Act

For more than 20 years, Mary Two-Axe Earley fought discrimination against First Nations women embedded in Canada's Indian Act. 

Under the act, women lost their Indian status if they married a non-status man, and their children were also denied status. Indian status was passed down exclusively through men.

The documentary Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again explains how Bill C-31, which passed in 1985, amended the Indian Act to allow Two-Axe Earley and thousands of other First Nations women and their children to have their status reinstated. 

Mary Two-Axe Earley fought discrimination against First Nations women embedded in Canada’s Indian Act. Her life story is told in the documentary Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again. (CBC/Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again)

"This is the first time we've ever been able to speak. We demand that the Indian act be changed to give us equal rights," she said in an archived clip from the documentary. 

Through her work, the Mohawk woman, who died in 1996, became a key figure in Canada's women's rights movement.

34 minutes | Director: Courtney Montour

After finding her biological family, she became a powerful advocate

A survivor of the Sixties Scoop, Nakuset was taken from her home in Thompson, Man., at the age of three and adopted into an affluent Jewish family in Montreal. Her adoptive parents encouraged her to assimilate and act like "a nice Jewish girl," and she grew into a meek and anxious teenager.

A little girl wearing big glasses, a polka dotted skirt and frilly white blouse poses for a portrait with a large toothless grin.
As a small child, Nakuset was taken from her home in Thompson, Man., and adopted into a Jewish family in Montreal. The documentary Becoming Nakuset tells the story of how she reclaimed her Indigenous identity with help from her bubbe. (CBC/Becoming Nakuset)

Nakuset always knew she was Indigenous, but was taught there was nothing good about that identity. She only connected with her roots when her Jewish grandmother, her bubbe, helped her find her biological family. 

Today, Nakuset is the executive director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal. When she first took the position, her focus was on youth protection. She knew there was a pattern of Indigenous children being placed in foster care and wanted to stop that cycle. But she said if it weren't for her bubby, she wouldn't be where she is.

"The reason why I'm a good person today is because of her," Nakuset said in the documentary Becoming Nakuset. "She gave me unconditional love."

12 minutes | Director: Victoria Anderson-Gardner

Carrying on history by caring for elders

In Sarain Fox's Anishinaabe culture, women are the leaders. Her great-aunt, Mary Bell, is her family's oldest living matriarch, and as a knowledge keeper, she holds the family's history: the stories, the trauma and the truth.

Fox's duty, as the youngest in her family, is to carry on the ways.

"My mother's never going to find me." Mary Bell recalls the trauma of residential school

2 years ago
Duration 1:34
Mary Bell, an Anishinaabe elder, recalls the trauma and abuse she endured in residential school. She shares her stories in the CBC Short Doc 'Inendi,' now streaming on CBC Gem.

"We sit with our elders while they live," she said in the documentary Inendi. "We need to take the time to hear them and to remember the stories they can share while they're here."

In the film, Fox spends time with her auntie during the COVID-19 pandemic. She listens and documents as Bell shares her experiences at residential school: how a teacher cut off her hair, how she was beaten as punishment, how she tried to run away. By caring for her auntie, Fox is preserving her family history. 

44 minutes | Director: Sarain Fox

Using comedy to ask tough questions

Since Europeans arrived on these shores, roads have been built to bring settlers across the country, connect them with resources, support industry and, ultimately, establish a nation.

For Indigenous people, these thoroughfares — often called Colonization Road — embody irony: colonization is still so pervasive that we have more than 1,600 kilometres of roads named after it.

Anishinaabe comedian Ryan McMahon investigates that history in the documentary Colonization Road, using laughter to shine light on heavy issues. 

In the documentary Colonization Road, comedian Ryan McMahon investigates tough issues around colonization, while using humour to educate. (CBC/Colonization Road)

He speaks with Indigenous and settler lawyers, historians and policy-makers, who provide context and propose solutions. And he revisits the free land grant ads and the treaties signed with the newcomers in the name of Indigenous sovereignty and nationhood.

44 minutes
Director | Michelle St. John

Watch these documentaries — and hundreds more — for free on CBC Gem.


Samantha Moya is an associate producer at CBC based in Toronto. She has worked in the local newsroom and with the CBC Docs digital team. She’s a graduate of the Toronto Metropolitan University and Sheridan College where she specialized in journalism and video production.

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