50 Years of Indigenous-Made Cinema in Canada: A Celebration

March 28, 2019

By Ariel Smith

For a very long time, one of the primary information sources for Canadians regarding Indigenous lives has been film and television. Unfortunately, much of the information presented through these platforms helped shape racist notions about First Nation, Métis and Inuit people. This is largely due to the fact that, since the very invention of the motion picture itself, Indigenous people’s stories have too often been told by non-Indigenous people for the benefit of non-Indigenous audiences. The result has been a historical stifling of authentic voice, and the promotion of harmful mischaracterizations of Indigenous peoples and communities. Alternatively, cinema made by Indigenous people successfully challenges these stereotypes, asserting a meaningful form of narrative sovereignty and self-determination.

On this National Canadian Film Day, as we look back on 100 years of Canadian cinema, let’s take some time to specifically celebrate the 50 years of Indigenous cinema in this country by reflecting on the following trailblazing milestones.



The birth of Indigenous film in Canada was in 1968 at the Montreal office of the National Film Board. The NFB recognized that stories about Indigenous people by the NFB were always being told from a non-Indigenous viewpoint, and in response “The Indian Film Crew” was formed marking the first time Indigenous people were making films at the NFB or anywhere in Canada. Members of the Indian Film Crew underwent five months of technical training and cut their teeth on such seminal work as The Ballad of Crowfoot. Released in 1968 and often referred to as Canada’s first music video, Willie Dunn’s The Ballad of Crowfoot was the very first film directed by an Indigenous person at the NFB. Other early works made by the Indian Film Crew include These Are My People (1969), which was the first film at the NFB made by an entirely Indigenous Crew, and You Are On Indian Land (1969). You are on Indian Land was directed by Mohawk filmmaker Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell but the NFB credited a non-Indigenous filmmaker as director until 2017 when the credit was changed.



Alanis Obomsawin, one of the most acclaimed and recognized Indigenous filmmakers in the world, made her very first film, Christmas at Moose Factory, through the National Film Board in 1971. Obomsawin came to cinema from performance and storytelling and was originally hired by the NFB as a consultant in 1967. Alanis has since made over 50 documentary films all of which have been produced through the NFB. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Obomsawin’s many honours also include the International Documentary Association’s Pioneer Award, the Toronto Women in Film and Television’s Outstanding Achievement Award in Direction, the Clyde Gilmour Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association, and the Albert-Tessier Award which acknowledged her substantial contributions to the cinema of Quebec.



The Inuit woman’s filmmaking collective Arnait was founded in Nunavut in 1991 by Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Madeline Ivalu, Susan Avingaq, Carol Kunuk and Atuat Akkitirq.  Arnait produced the film Before Tomorrow. Directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu. Before Tomorrow was nominated for nine Genie Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costumes, Sound and Original Song.



What is arguably Alanis Obomsawin’s most celebrated work, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance was released in 1993. The making of this film saw Obomsawin behind Kanien’kéhaka lines for 78 days as she filmed the armed standoff between protestors, Quebec police and the Canadian army during the infamous Oka Crisis of 1990. Seen around the world, the documentary has won dozens of awards at festivals Internationally and made history by being the first documentary to ever to win the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Film critic and Director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office Jesse Wente called Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance “a watershed film in the history of First Peoples cinema.”



Indigenous creatives in Canada gained an unprecedented new platform with the launch of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN) in 1999. This was the first, and remains the only, national network in Canada dedicated to Indigenous programming. APTN is the leading broadcaster of short and feature films by Indigenous artists in Canada, and has also produced and broadcast original television series created by Indigenous filmmakers such as Loretta Todd, Carol Geddes, and Jules Koostachin.



In 2000, Shirley Cheechoo released Bearwalker, the first dramatic feature film to be made by an Indigenous person in Canada. Bearwalker had its debut at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Shirley founded the Weengushk Film Institute (WFI) in 2002. WFI is a non-profit, artist-focused film and television-training centre on Manitoulin Island, dedicated to unlocking the creative potential of Indigenous youth through media arts.


The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival was launched in Toronto in 2000. imagineNATIVE  has become the world’s largest presenter and market for international Indigenous film and media. The festival has helped launch the careers of some of the most respected Indigenous filmmakers in Canada and draws over twenty thousand to it’s programming each year.

2000 saw the launch of the Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking (IIDF) program, formerly the Aboriginal Film & TV Production Training program, at Capilano University. The program was formed in response to the ever-increasing demand for skilled Indigenous professionals in all areas of the film and television industry, including writers, directors, and technicians. The Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking Program is committed to providing Indigenous students with high-quality production training through a culturally specific lens. Alumni of note include Jay Cardinal Villeneuve whose film Holy Angels, produced by the NFB, opened the 2017 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, and won a Leo Award for Screenwriting.



Director Zacharias Kunuk’s film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, was only the second dramatic feature film ever made by an Indigenous person in Canada when it was released in 2001. It won the prestigious Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. This was a huge milestone not just for Indigenous cinema but for Canada. The film won six Genie awards in 2002 including Best Picture and Best Director, and was included in the Toronto International Film Festival Group’s list of the Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time.


The National Screen Institute launched its New Voices Program, a culturally-sensitive training course that exposes young Indigenous people aged 18-35 to a variety of creative and challenging employment opportunities in film, TV and digital media. Other programs run by NSI include IndigiDocs and Features First. Notable NSI alumni include Loretta Todd, Marie Clements, Michelle Latimer, Michelle St John, Laura Milliken, Tasha Hubbard, Dennis Allen, Shane Belcourt and Lisa Jackson.



The Journals of Knud Rasmussen by Zacharias Kunuk’s opened the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. It was the first, and so far the only, film directed by an Indigenous filmmaker to do so.



2012 saw the largest, most comprehensive Indigenous film series ever compiled presented at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in the summer of 2012. The Toronto International Film Festival hosted the First Peoples Cinema: 1,500 Nations, One Tradition film series, as well as Home on Native Land, a free gallery exhibition.



The 2013 edition of the Toronto International saw the premiere of Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Empire of Dirt from producer Jennifer Podemski and writer Shannon Masters, and Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary Hi-Ho Mistahey! The screening of three Canadian, Indigenous-made feature films in one year at TIFF was cause to celebrate, and indicative of the meteoric growth of the country’s Indigenous filmmaking community, as only three Indigenous-made feature films total had screened at TIFF over the previous five-year period of 2008-2013.


Alanis Obomsawin’s Trick or Treaty made its world debut at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. It is the first work by an Indigenous filmmaker to ever be included in TIFF’s prestigious Masters Program.


Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk premiered at the 2016 Hot Docs Festival where it received the Vimeo On Demand Audience Award and the Canadian Documentary Promotion Award.


In 2018 Darlene Naponse cast veteran actor Tantoo Cardinal in her film Falls Around Her. Despite Cardinal having an active and distinguished career for over 4 decades, Falls Around Her was her first-ever starring role as the main protagonist in a feature film.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada (CBC/SRC), the Canada Media Fund (CMF), Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA), and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), collaborated to create an Indigenous Screen Office in Canada. The objective of this office is to better support the Indigenous screen-based sector in Canada and is modeled after Indigenous Screen offices in Australia & New Zealand. Programmer, film critic and Indigenous Cinema advocate Jesse Wente was appointed as Director of the office.


Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) by Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown premieres at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It was the first film to be shot entirely in the Haida language.



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