Indigenous TV that 'lifts the veil' on National Aborginal History Month

Jordan Wheeler recommends four not-to-miss shows on CBC-TV this month. CBC celebrates National Aboriginal History Month with special TV programming that celebrates arts, culture, history and stories from indigenous communities across Canada.

Your guide to CBC's 'Absolutely Aboriginal'

Natar Ungalaaq in a scene from the 2001 movie Atanarjuat:The Fast Runner by Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk. (The Canadian Press)

CBC celebrates National Aboriginal History Month with a month of special TV programming that celebrates arts, culture, history and stories from indigenous communities across Canada.

So apparently June has been National Aboriginal History Month since 2009. Good to know. It's a chance to reflect on indigenous history — seven generations is how far we're told to look back, and ahead as well, but as of yet we have no Aboriginal Future Month.

Here are some choices in CBC programming that will help lift the veil that has often shrouded indigenous history, a veil that too often has felt like an iron curtain.

First, a caveat — my writing background is fiction and drama so I may have a bias in that direction. And given that we're talking history, I looked towards projects that offered that context.

The content of some of the choices will be hard to watch, which I think is good. I prefer thought provoking motion picture that challenges an audience rather than coddling them.

Each choice offers some hard truths and tough information that will need to be reconciled. Truth and reconciliation is likely the reason the existence of National Aboriginal History Month has bubbled to the surface at all.

So sit back, grab a box of tissue and reconcile these:

1. Atanarjuat

This 2001 Zacharias Kunuk feature film is at the top of some best Canadian feature film lists. Visually stunning, historically accurate, shot entirely in the Arctic and in Inuktitut (it's subtitled in English for those of us not up on our Inuktitut) with Inuit actors and an Inuit writer and director, the project is a template for how to dramatize indigenous history in the proper way.

What I like best about this film, aside from the story, is that it's set a very long time ago, meaning there are no characters of European descent. It's a beacon against the notion that indigenous history begins with the arrival of the Europeans.

It airs at 11 p.m. Saturday, June 20

2. Doc Zone: 8th Fire

8th Fire is an in-depth four-part documentary series that examines the evolution of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples and their communities. And it doesn't hold back.

Wab Kinew hosts the doc series 8th Fire. (CBC)
In a way it is Truth and Reconciliation 1.0. Watch all four episodes and you will come away with a deeper understanding of Indigenous Peoples, no matter how much you thought you knew beforehand. In terms of providing a historical context and becoming a strong teaching tool, 8th Fire has raised the bar.

Wab Kinew hosts and he has that Peter Mansbridge element — when he talks you believe him.

It airs at 2 p.m., Sundays, June 21 and 28

3. Blackstone

​This drama series is one of those controversial projects that appear from time to time that polarizes the indigenous audience. On one hand some lament, 'do we really need to show this kind of stuff on television?' But that gets countered with the sentiment 'man, I'm glad we have something like this on television.'

The former tends to be the view of the older demographic; the latter the younger.

Blackstone is edgy and contemporary indigenous drama.
Blackstone is a half hour drama that strives to be edgy and it manages to get there as it explores community dysfunction on several levels. It gives us a portrait of the result of cultural genocide that is all too common.

The number of F-bombs is a distraction and you'll need some Gravol to get through season one, but the camera moves settle down in later seasons. In dramatic terms it's worth the tree, evident by the number of awards it keeps piling up.

It kicks off at 11 p.m., Monday, June 15

4. Trick or Treaty

This is the latest addition to the body of work that is the career of maestro Alanis Obomsawin. You can feel hope and change surge through you as you watch this feature length documentary.

Alanis Obomsawin has made 40 documentaries for the National Film Board since 1971. (CBC News)
Perhaps too languid for some, Trick or Treaty gives us that classic, NFB style that Obomsawin has mastered. The visuals and sound bites merge seamlessly, and though it is not the best work in a career that began in the late 60s, I give this one a nod because of that body of work.  

It's Alanis Obomsawin — watch all of her films and you'll know indigenous history and its relationship with Canada.

It airs at 7 p.m., Saturday, June 20

About the Author

Jordan Wheeler is a Gemini award winning writer living in Winnipeg. His journalistic work, over the last 30 years, has appeared in various publications across the country. He is also a member of the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan.