Creator of North of 60 says show changed attitudes about Indigenous people

North of 60 creators Barabara Samuels and Wayne Grigsby discuss how they made a groundbreaking show for telling Indigenous stories that would eventually become an iconic Canadian program.
North of 60 writer and producer Barbara Samuels and producer Wayne Grigsby. (CBC)

At the time, the creators of North of 60 had no idea that what they were making would become an iconic Canadian television show.

When it launched on December 3, 1992, it had one of the highest debut audiences for a CBC television drama ever. It went on to become the launching pad for many Indigenous actors and writers including Tina Keeper, Dakota House and Richard Van Camp.

Barbara Samuels, along with Wayne Grigsby created North of 60 after working on E.N.G., a show about a Toronto newsroom. 

"We were looking for a new landscape and we were both very interested in the idea of looking north and of just finding people who have not been on screen before," she said. "People whose stories, in contemporary terms, had not been told before."
Actor Dakota House played Trevor Teevee Tenia in North of 60. (CBC)

To find those stories, they looked to northern Canada, eventually deciding on the fictitious Dene community of Lynx River set in the Northwest Territories. Samuels said what was fascinating about the territories was that Indigenous people were the majority population with only a few non-Indigenous people.

"We wanted to invert the proportion," she said. "We wanted an Indigenous town where people lived according to their rules."

She said while developing the series, Indigenous people were open and trusting with their stories. One woman shared her residential school experience with Samuels, which later became the inspiration for the character Michelle Kenidi, played by Tina Keeper.
Tina Keeper played Michelle Kenidi in North of 60. (CBC)

But she said an early focus group with non-Indigenous people in the south revealed a disturbing prejudice.

"There was a certain amount of cynicism from people after watching several episodes or a season. [They said] what we were showing them was basically nonsense because they'd seen the way 'Native people lived on the news.'"

Those attitudes changed by the second season and North of 60 became appointment television for many Canadians. She said a "wonderful metamorphosis" happened by the time they did a second focus group.

"[There was a] focus group, again made up of non-Indigenous, ethnically mixed background, talking about 'our Michelle' and that suddenly by the second season Michelle belonged to the viewers. Peter (played by Tom Jackson) belonged to the viewers, the town belonged to the viewers."