Supporting Indigenous Storytellers of Canada
Shortly after winning best actress in a feature film (‘Night Raiders’) at the Canadian Screen Awards (CSA), Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, a member of Kainai First Nation in Alberta, spoke with the CBC about her award. She told them, “I am really proud to be an Indigenous storyteller at this moment, it feels really special.” She credits her success – and those of other Indigenous filmmakers in recent years in Canada – as proof that “previous underrepresentation was not about a lack of talent but a lack of opportunity.”
Among those playing a significant role in providing more opportunities is the Indigenous Screen Office (ISO), a 5-year-old organization that has dedicated itself to being a national advocacy and funding organization focused on First Nations, Inuit, and Métis storytelling. Since their launch in 2018, ISO has succeeded in providing funding for a wave of visual stories that can counter a century worth of repression of Indigenous stories in Canada.
We spoke with Jesse Wente, Co-Executive Director of the ISO, and author of ‘Unreconciled: Family, Truth, and Indigenous Resistance,’ about the organization’s goals and impacts, as well as why Indigenous storytelling is so critical for everyone’s future.
The shaping of Indigenous storytelling and the ISO
Ever since seeing ‘Star Wars’ as a three-year-old, Jesse Wente of Toronto, Canada, has been a self-proclaimed "movie person". He would go on to become a culture critic for CBC radio for over a decade, and then director of programming at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the year-round cinematheque operated by the Toronto International Festival, where he managed new and retrospective releases.
In 2017, it was announced that the Indigenous Screen Office would be created. Wente, who is an Ojibwe member of the Serpent River First National, told the CBC that it presented an opportunity that was “what his career and life had been leading up to.” He became the organization’s first director in early 2018 and got to work trying to make the ISO, as he puts it, a “permanent part of the cultural landscape and the cultural infrastructure” in Canada.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in 'Night Raiders' / Elevation Pictures
The ISO seeks to enable filmmakers to embrace narrative sovereignty and the ability for Indigenous peoples to tell their own stories through the creation of films, TV shows, and video games. Part of that involves the correction of existing narratives about the history of Indigenous people in Canada, as well as their treatment. “As much progress has been made, there’s still a significant amount of denial,” Wente says. “Part of what underpins that denial is the storytelling that has occurred up until now, which is the false stories about the history of this place.”
Tragedies like the discovery in 2021 of hundreds of unmarked graves found on the grounds of former residential schools have produced a groundswell of awareness. On screen, a wave of Indigenous films (‘Blood Quantum’, ‘Night Raiders’, and others) has swept the Canadian Screen Awards – the country’s equivalent of the Academy Awards – and have also contributed to sharing stories not told enough. “Canadians have begun to get a more clear-eyed view of history and this place, as well as hopefully, a much more clear-eyed view of the future,” Wente says.
Creating financial infrastructure to support narrative sovereignty
The ISO’s part in correcting history and impacting the future comes, in part, through critical funding. There is, of course, existing arts funding in Canada, but it has typically not found its way significantly enough to Indigenous storytellers. Recent years have seen organizations undergo improvements, but the challenge remains: there is not a lot of infrastructure dedicated solely to Indigenous funding.
Correcting that disparity has been the ISO’s mission since the organization first launched. “We needed to bring in more financial supports that are dedicated, and administered by ndigenous peoples, for Indigenous people,” Wente explains. The ISO’s ability to better serve Indigenous people has, for example, led to 80 projects involving Indigenous languages receiving funding from the ISO. That represents just under 40 percent of projects the ISO has supported. “You don't see numbers like that at non-Indigenous funding,” Wente says.
Forrest Goodluck, Michael Greyeyes, and Kiowa Gordon in 'Blood Quantum' / Shudder
The money the ISO has allocated to projects has been significant. In 2021, it received a $40.1 million budget, and in the last eight months has disbursed $13 million. That’s not to say, however, that everything is as it should be. “It’s still an upward struggle. Yes, we received that money in the budget last year, but it was half of what we had requested,” Wente says.
Why Indigenous storytelling matters now and for the future
Wente believes more Indigenous storytelling can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of Canada. For one, the country has long struggled with finding a clear definition of what its culture actually is, beyond hockey and Tim Horton’s. “If we want to grow Canadian culture, Indigenous people are central to that,” Wente says. “You don’t have Canada without us.”
An increase in Indigenous stories can also have an impact not just on national concerns, but society. Especially in this unique moment in time where the world feels like it’s at something of a crossroads. “It's vitally important, as we begin to imagine what our future can be in this most tenuous moment, that we are able to hear stories from a huge swath of people. Because if we're only listening to stories from a very few, then the future is going to serve those very few. This moment requires listening to a huge swath of people to actually figure out what to do next,” Wente says.
He hopes that the ISO can help make that happen. “My dream is to flood this place with stories so that it can't help but change,” he says. The hope is that “[it] will result in a cultural shift and understanding, which will result in a shift in how we relate and interact with one another.”
Wente stresses that, of course, the ISO is not the only organization doing so. Wente points to the Indigenous Film Summit in Winnipeg, the Weengushk Film Institute Fund operating on Manitoulin Island, the Indigenous Matriarchs 4 XR Media Lab in British Columbia, the ImagineNATIVE festival, and more. Wente also knows change is not going to be an overnight process, but still a fruitful one. “It's part of the very long journey we're on as, as First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples,” he says. “This is just a moment in time on that path.”