'Indigenous voice matters:' What to watch this June

CBC host Duncan McCue shares his must-watch picks for National Indigenous History Month.

CBC host Duncan McCue shares his must-watch picks for National Indigenous History Month.

(Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Not able to go out for entertainment when the COVID-19 pandemic started, Duncan McCue was looking for television and movies to stream at home when it occurred to him that his 17-year-old son had not seen some of the classics of Indigenous cinema. 

"That struck me as a shame," says McCue, host of CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup

"Indigenous representation in media has always been important to me as a journalist, but also just as a consumer of television and movies. People's images of Indigenous people have been shaped by movies negatively in the past, that's why it's so important that Canadians in general have a chance to see the amazing Indigenous movies that are being made." 

The change in the film and TV industry

"I'm old enough, I'm afraid, that I remember when it was a big deal to have Ingidenous actors play Indigenous parts," says McCue. "For example, when the 1990 film Dances With Wolves came out, it was a big deal to see Indigenous actors like Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal on the big screen." 


We've gone so far beyond that now, thankfully. 

"I think we're starting to see the industry recognize that Indigenous voice matters," says McCue.

In the past decade or so there's been more appetite for Indigenous stories from Indigenous directors and scriptwriters, and the Indigenous acting community has grown leaps and bounds. 

"The next level is really taking our narratives and starting to share them with broader audiences. That's slowly starting to happen."

"CBC Gem has some great offerings in the Indigenous section, and NFB has also started offering their documentaries." 

These are McCue's must-watch picks and why they matter. 

Teenage Dramas

The Lesser Blessed

Based on the book by fabulous author Richard van Camp, The Lesser Blessed is definitely a conversation-starter. The Lesser Blessed is a coming-of-age story about a teen in Canada's Northwest Territories whose Tli Cho (or Dogrib) heritage is far from the only thing setting him apart from his peers.

"When I was growing up as an Anishinaabe teenager, I didn't see myself on the big screen," says McCue. 

"It was nice to be able to share that with my son." 

"We had some good conversations about Indigenous identity and some of the things he observed about living in the North that were portrayed in that movie," says McCue. 

Rhymes for Young Ghouls

Directed by Mi'kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, Rhymes for Young Ghouls show some of the harsh realities of Indigenous life, but also some of the joys.

"I really think Rhymes for Young Ghouls was breaking all kinds of boundaries in terms of Indigenous cinema in Canada. [Jeff Barnaby] took the residential school experience and went beyond the stereotypes and tropes that we often see, and gave it a new twist. He talked about colonization, and the way he made the Indian agent a brutal character really gave you a sense of how the Indian Act controls the lives of Indigenous people in this country."



Amanda Strong's Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) is a mesmerizing short film, following an Indigenous youth who sets out to revitalize the Anishinaabe practice of maple syrup making in an urban Ontario neighbourhood.

"It's done in stop-motion animation and is very clever in terms of its use of that form — scary as well," says McCue. 

The Mountain of SGaana

The Mountain of SGaana spins a magical tale of a young man who is stolen away to the spirit world and the young woman who rescues him.

"This is another short animation based on a Haida legend. It was well done, and nice to be able to show my son that there are so many Indigenous creatives who are exploring contemporary forms — whether it's stop-motion or animation — and how rich our traditional stories can be when they're transformed into these formats."

Based in the North

McCue's CBC career has taken him to Nunavut, Northwest Territories and the Yukon. While many may never have this opportunity, film was a wonderful way to expose you to Inuit storytelling, says McCue.

"I wish all Canadians had an opportunity to visit the North, I think it would give them a greater sense of the importance of the North to this country and how different it is, and how we often neglect the North in the South."

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner 

"When you look at Indigenous cinema, [Atanarjuat] is #1 on everybody's list for a reason." 

Atanarjuat won the Caméra d'Or at the 2001 Cannes film festival and has been called the best Canadian movie ever made.

The eponymous main character, Atanarjuat is a legendary Inuk hunter who gets wrapped up in a complex drama of romance and revenge brought on by a spiritual disturbance. 

"Director Zacharias Kunuk took a really rich Inuit legend and brought to the screen in a way that we haven't really seen before. Indigenous cinema that's set in the past, it's all beads and buckskin, it's hard to portray. He made this Inuit legend about love and animosity, a universal tale that anyone could connect with."


There is an epic quality in the landscape, language, and culture of Igloolik.

"There's some incredible cinematography in it. A scene of fast runner, where the lead actor is running barefoot across frozen landscape, an absolutely cinematic scene that sticks in your memory — of this man running naked across the ice for minutes, and minutes, and minutes on screen." 

It was the first feature film to be made entirely in Inuktitut, featuring Inuit actors and telling Inuit stories.

"Zacharius made a really huge effort to involve community in the movie, so it was an entirely Inuit production — whether it was actors, cinematography, production crew, caterers. Every aspect of it was an Inuit-driven project, and that's something he continues to do in his director career. I think you see the difference in the storytelling and the nature of the culture."


Uvanga is a story about young Inuk who comes back to his community for the first time, and starts to explore the family bonds that he never knew about.

"I chose Uvanga because it is a story about young boys, and I thought my son would be able to identify with that," says McCue. 



In Maina, a young Innu woman embarks on a journey to save her young friend after being captured by a group of Inuit travellers. When her rescue mission fails, the Inuit travellers take her captive as well and she joins them on their arduous journey to the Arctic.

"Inuit cinema is a wonderful way to start to learn about the very rich stories that the Inuit have and begin to get a better sense of the North," McCue adds. 


Having an Indigenous film fest can get very heavy after a couple of weeks, especially during a pandemic, says McCue, since many films deal with tough truths and difficult realities for indigenous people in Canada.

"I think Indigenous filmmakers and scriptwriters really have a need and a desire to get Canadians to understand the hardships of Indigenous reality in this country, and that's so important. Whether it is the sexual abuse that goes on in our communities, the substance abuse, the poverty, the cultural confusion, all of those things make Indigenous life in this country very difficult."

But sometimes, we watch TV or film to take a break from the world, says McCue.

"We just needed to watch a rom-com, or something escapist," so these are a few comedies you can watch to take the edge off. 

Mohawk Girls

"Mohawk Girls does a fantastic job of capturing that Native women humour, and it's lovely to see Native women on screen just being sassy and sexy," says McCue.

Films directed by Taika Waititi

New Zealander Taika Waititi is known internationally for his films that emphasize humour. 

"Thor Ragnarok is absolutely a Maori movie in many many ways," says McCue.  

Waititi's other comedic films include Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Jojo Rabbit, and What We Do in the Shadows, among others.