North

Prominent Yukon musher calls on MP to denounce sled dog documentary

Michelle Phillips says the new documentary, Sled Dogs, uses extreme incidents of dog abuse to tarnish all mushers. 'All of us ... are really, really saddened by this whole film.'

Michelle Phillips says documentary uses extreme incidents to lay blame on all mushers

A still from the trailer for the documentary 'Sled Dogs'. The film, which has only been shown at one film festival, is under attack from mushers who say it demonizes them and their way of life. (CBC/Sled Dogs)

Yukon musher Michelle Phillips wants Yukoners and their politicians to denounce a new documentary on sled dog kennels that she says unfairly portrays mushers as inhumane.

Sled Dogs debuted at the Whistler Film Festival earlier this month and will eventually be shown on the CBC's Documentary Channel.

Phillips, who has competed in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races and runs dogsled tours with her husband Ed Hopkins at their kennel south of Whitehorse, hasn't seen the documentary but she's read lots about it.

Yukon musher Michelle Phillips with one of partner Ed Hopkins' dogs at the 2016 Yukon Quest. (Julien Schroder/Yukon Quest)

She points to complaints that the filmmaker, Fern Levitt, misled some of the people who cooperated with her during the shooting of the film, and that it unfairly portrays mushers by focusing on a few extreme cases of dog abuse including the slaughter of dozens of sled dogs in Whistler, B.C., after the 2010 Olympics.

"Apparently, she termed us altogether with the Whistler incident. And all of us as tour operators and sled dog owners are really, really saddened by this whole film," said Phillips.

Phillips wants pressure put on the Canada Media Fund which contributed more than $400,000 to the documentary's budget. She says she's contacted Yukon MP Larry Bagnell asking him to get involved.

"I think it's important for all of us to speak out and contact our officials, and having this funding taken away from this woman and looked into," said Phillips.

Treatment of dogs 'cruel and inhumane', filmmaker says

Levitt does not accept the criticisms of her, or the film. She said in a statement on the documentary's website that she came to the issue with an open mind, and then found that people in the sled dog industry look at it "through rose-coloured glasses."

"But all too often, the treatment of many dogs in the sled dog industry is both cruel and inhumane. Keeping dogs chained, having them live outside, and forcing them to run miles on end is against the basic nature of these animals," Levitt's statement reads.

'Sled Dogs' director Fern Levitt with Slater, a dog she says she rescued from an Ontario dog sledding business, where he had about a year left as a lead dog. (Fern Levitt)

Alaska resident Patrick Beall told CBC in November that Levitt did not communicate any of that to him when he agreed to become a subject of the documentary before he began training in 2015 to complete in the 2016 Iditarod.

"She was extremely nice, she gave me compliments saying that my voice would be great for the camera and you know, she even told me that I was handsome," Beall said.

"So she was really buttering me up — not too often women tell me I'm handsome." 

He said that supportive attitude towards him continued once the race started.

"Off camera, they were just like, 'dude, you're doing awesome, keep it up, this is great, your dogs look good' — all that stuff.

He said Levitt is entitled to her opinion about the treatment of sled dogs, but he feels he was mistreated.

"I was offered money, and I would redo things for them that I didn't want to redo because I was training. So, they did take up my time with false smiles and false praise," Beall said.

Alaska musher Patrick Beall says he was taken in by the crew of the documentary and was not told they would be focusing on negative aspects of dog mushing. (Patrick Beall/Facebook)

Levitt a respected filmmaker, says CMF

A statement from the Canada Media Fund (CMF) says the complaints of misrepresentation are being looked into.

But it notes the documentary was expected to reflect its maker's point of view, and the CMF does not interfere in content. The statement also says both the production company and the filmmaker are respected within the industry.

It adds that most of the CMF's funding comes from the private sector, not the federal government.

Meanwhile, CBC spokesperson Chuck Thompson said the CBC has responded to individuals who have expressed concerns about the documentary.

"It's a film that examines an issue of keen public interest, and while it does shine a light on what many view as distasteful practices used in the dog-sledding industry, it should not be seen as an indictment of the business as a whole," Thompson said.

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