We trust artists like Michelle Latimer to avoid harming Indigenous people

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers explains the particular kind of pain revelations about Michelle Latimer have caused within the Indigenous film community

Michelle Latimer Indigenous
Samuel Engelking

Trickster and Inconvenient Indian director Michelle Latimer poses on top of a condo rooftop in Toronto.

We were gathered for a filmmaking workshop at the Urban Native Youth Association in East Vancouver. I was co-facilitating with filmmaker Jessica Hallenbeck. One participant was that particular kind of shy brown-skinned Indigenous teenage boy who didn’t yet know his worth in this world. He wore sweatpants, a hoodie and sneakers, and had a head of thick black hair. He was afraid to smile, much less make eye contact with the other teens in the room. 

I’d asked the young people to introduce themselves – to give us their names, where they come from and what they found most exciting about film. When his turn came, he kept his gaze steady on one spot on the floor as he quietly shared his name and that he was from Vancouver. I interjected. “And, what nation are you from?” He paused, and then whispered, “I don’t know.” 

My heart sank to untold depths. I had just inadvertently implied that an Indigenous youth who grew up in foster care didn’t belong. Belonging is everything in Indigenous communities, but at that moment I made him feel so small. I still carry the shame from that interaction, knowing I could not undo that harm.

People wonder how former Trickster director Michelle Latimer, whose identity has recently come under scrutiny, could claim to be Indigenous for so long without skepticism. She was trusted because the Indigenous film community is protective. We want to avoid doing harm to those who have experienced the trauma of displacement.

And with that trust, Latimer found herself positioned as a leading figure in the Indigenous film community, breaking through with Rise, a documentary series tracking Indigenous people across North America resisting colonization.

Just a few months ago, Latimer was on the cover of NOW Magazine, discussing the Indigenous lens she brought to two projects about reclamation, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival: The groundbreaking primetime CBC series Trickster, which she adapted from Eden Robinson’s novel, and the documentary Inconvenient Indian, an adaptation of Thomas King’s book.

“I was able to own my experience,” Latimer said about connecting with Indigenous artists, “and translate that into making art, for, and about, my community.” 

Questions for Michelle Latimer and Indigenous people

“Where are you from?” is a simple enough question, one that is generally customary to ask within Indigenous communities. In both of my Indigenous cultures – Blackfoot and Sámi – it is protocol to offer the names of your parents and grandparents when you introduce yourself. It is a means of respectfully positioning yourself as a community member. Good relations are everything to Indigenous people. It is how we’ve survived genocide. But that question also has the potential to do harm to the countless Indigenous people who have been legitimately displaced from their homelands.

Genocide has fractured our nations, our communities, our families and our sense of self in countless ways. Settler colonialism was designed to operate – to thrive – on the violent dispossession of everything we are as Indigenous peoples.

Similar to the rich cultures that we come from, the Indigenous film community is grounded in an ethos of respect, care and humility. Those values are derived from the teachings of the many nations we come from. That respect and care also mean that many of us are willing to trust that others have done the very necessary work of building good relations within our nations of origin. Many of us are also aware of the unintended harm that can result from questioning someone’s origins when there is trauma involved. 

Belonging is an action, a relationship and a responsibility. It means to be claimed by a people and be embraced by a place. For many, belonging means coming home, and that can be a painful process – especially for those who have been displaced through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the foster care system and land theft. 

As someone who grew up away from home, belonging has meant constantly battling self-doubt and insecurities about not being Blackfoot or Sámi enough. Sámi is my first language. And my parents met at a gathering for the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in Australia. And somehow I still feel inadequate. 

However, the older I get and the harder I work to come home, the more I understand that as long as I’m trying my best to do good by my people, then my ancestors are proud. There is an unshakeable and expansive quality to that kind of belonging. We assumed Latimer belonged to the people and the places she claimed, especially because she was perceived as a leader.

White supremacy is a Canadian institution

I grew up hearing my grandparents say, “Indians have to work twice as hard.” Both survived residential schools and were painfully aware that the nation-state that was imposed on our homelands was designed to destroy us. To survive, or to earn even a scrap of respect from white settlers, meant we had to go above and beyond to prove ourselves. I witnessed that mindset time and time again in my grandparents and my parents. I see it in my entire family. I see it in myself. Maybe it’s internalized oppression. I call it a survival mechanism. I’ve never been the smartest or the most talented in the room but I’ve always been willing to work twice as hard. 

However, I’m not under the illusion that the doors that have opened for me were just the result of hard work. Canada was founded on white supremacy, an ugly cannibalizing ideology that persists in every aspect of Canadian society today, including the institutions that have funded my films. Colourism is real. Maybe if I look, sound and act just enough like the colonizers, they’ll throw me some scraps. That is how it is in the film industry at large. 

The Michelle Latimer story isn’t just about her claiming Indigenous ancestry. This story is also about how Canadian institutions uphold white supremacy through who is given access to resources and who is not.

Institutions like Telefilm, the National Film Board of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, Bell Media, the Canada Media Fund and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s have their own internal bias toward racialized Indigenous people. They look at people like Latimer and they see “one of the good ones” reflected back at them, and that is something they trust. 

Over the last year. we’ve witnessed a massive shift in the Canadian film industry thanks to the hard work of the BIPOC community and their allies. The Canadian film industry is being forced to reckon with its white supremacy. And it’s clear that those that have been taking the lion’s share of the resources are not willing to give that up.

A photo from the movie Inconvenient Indian
Courtesy of TIFF

A scene from Inconvenient Indian

Sovereignty in Indigenous storytelling

To some, the debate around Latimer’s Indigeneity looks like identity policing or lateral violence. However, that conversation is ultimately a distraction. As Latimer, who resigned from Trickster following public pressure, has put it herself in a statement on social media, this is about “a responsibility to… Indigenous people fighting for their sovereignty.”

Like belonging, sovereignty is an action, a relationship and a responsibility. Indigenous sovereignty is not determined by individuals – it is determined by nations as a collective.

Since the first contact, Indigenous nations have defended our sovereignty and have resisted genocide. In the film industry, we have also fought for sovereignty over our own stories because our stories have power and they belong to us. This work has been carried over generations. There is still much work to be done to hold the industry accountable. 

But this labour has resulted in milestones such as the imagineNATIVE Pathways and Protocols document, the founding of the Indigenous Screen Office, the Telefilm Indigenous Stream and more.

Jesse Wente, executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office, defines narrative sovereignty in the imagineNATIVE report as “the ability of the nations to have some measure of control over the stories that are told about themselves.”

But he says that, “Throughout the entire history of filmmaking, the overwhelming majority of stories told about Indigenous peoples – both fictional and documentary – have been told by non-Indigenous people.” 

Doing the work

There should be no debate on whether Latimer is Indigenous. She may have distant Indigenous ancestry but she is not recognized by the nations that she claims. Genetic ancestry does not prove Indigenous affiliation.

For a more detailed analysis, I urge you to read Kim Tallbear’s Twitter thread on why genetic ancestry does not prove Indigenous affiliation; or Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs’s statement on what it means to be Indigenous; or Daryl Leroux’s scholarly article on Aspirational Descent and Race Shifting. Leroux, a white settler, states that he and over a million white Canadians – including Justin Trudeau – share the same two Indigenous ancestors from the 1600s as Michelle Latimer. 

According to the imagineNATIVE On Screen Protocols And Pathways document – which was developed in collaboration with the Indigenous film community – the fundamental principles of working with Indigenous people, communities and stories are respect, responsibility, consent and reciprocity.

Latimer’s documentary Inconvenient Indian highlighted some of the most prominent Indigenous voices in Canada such as Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Christi Belcourt and Kent Monkman. It is clear that some of these participants are upset because they feel misled. Belcourt is now calling on Latimer to apologize to the Metis nation for claiming Metis heritage with no proof.

Author Eden Robinson was inclined to option the rights to her Trickster book series to an Indigenous creative with the understanding that the show would hire as many Indigenous cast and crew as possible. There was only one director on Trickster and that was Latimer. 

“I’m willing to work to regain your respect,” Robinson said in a statement made on social media, expressing her embarrassment, disappointment and anger at the recent revelations. She adds that she will be donating her future royalties from Trickster to preserve the Haisla language. “As messy and real as our lives can get, I don’t know how to walk in the world without my people and I pity anyone who doesn’t understand what we have.”

Inconvenient Indian
Courtesy NFB

Gail Maurice in a scene from Inconvenient Indian

Occupying space

Latimer has shared that she is relying on oral history to claim Indigenous ancestry. That is fair but it is not adequate. When one takes up space and resources, it is an expectation that they have done the work of “coming home.” She knows what that work looks like. She’s seen it modelled by the Indigenous film community. She has accumulated a great deal of capital – both cultural and financial – while avoiding that work. To the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation and to the Metis Nation, you should know what that capital looks like. 

Before she resigned, her six-part series Trickster had been given the green light for a second season. Latimer was the co-creator and directed all six episodes of the show, and co-wrote two episodes. The estimated budget for season one of Trickster was $18.72 million. 

For executive producer episodic fees and royalties, a conservative estimate suggests that Latimer likely earned over $200,000. The television mini-series rates set by the Directors Guild of Canada suggest Latimer may have been paid $440,000 for directing all six episodes. She likely earned at least $80,000 as a co-writer for two episodes (including the pilot) of Trickster. The recent acquisition of Trickster in the U.S. by the CW Network would have also generated significant profits. There are also likely sales bonuses with both the CBC and the CW. Then there are the net profits as the majority owner of the production company. Finally, there are residuals that she will continue to earn long after the show first airs. 

The WGC and DGC rates for writing and directing a feature-length documentary suggest that Latimer likely earned over $90,000 for her work on Inconvenient Indian. Last week, she took home the BMO-DOC Vanguard Award which is worth over $40,000 in in-kind services. She has claimed numerous other awards over the years some with financial rewards attached but all come with significant cultural capital. She also has numerous projects in the pipeline, including a documentary on Mi’kmaq activist Anne Mae Aquash.

A painful reckoning

Many of us have known for weeks, if not months, that the CBC story questioning her Indigeneity was coming. It has been a devastating process to navigate. When the news finally broke, we witnessed a wave of pain wash over the broader Indigenous community. There was no shortage of tears. Hearts were broken.

Over her 20 years in the industry, Latimer has built countless relationships with Indigenous people. She has gained the trust and love of many. As in any tight-knit community, when one person succeeds, we share that success as a community. She was a leader. She was someone emerging filmmakers could look to and say, “If she can do it, then so can I.” Those young filmmakers are now contending with the reality that the most successful Indigenous filmmaker in Canada is a white settler with a distant Indigenous heritage. 

This story has also brought to the surface the immense pain many Indigenous people feel regarding identity. Settler colonialism does a great job at gaslighting. 

In 2016, I was hired to direct an episode of Rise, the Viceland series produced by Latimer. I was overjoyed to be given this opportunity as an emerging filmmaker. I respected and admired Latimer, and she promised that I would be supported when I voiced my concerns about my lack of experience. 

That support never came. Instead, I faced unrealistic expectations that did not align with my ethics as an Indigenous filmmaker. Ultimately, I found myself sitting in a grassy field at Standing Rock crying over the phone with my mother. She told me to follow my heart and my heart said that I wasn’t meant to be there. So I left. 

That work experience was the worst I’ve ever had. I felt like a failure. My self-confidence as a filmmaker was destroyed and I considered quitting. After months, I made my way home to Kainai. I was reminded of my purpose and the beauty of belonging to a people and a place.

Arnell Tailfeathers

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers shoots her upcoming documentary Kimmapiiyipitssini with a fully Indigenous crew in Kanai

Healing and moving on

I’m now in the final stretch of post-production on a feature-length documentary called Kimmapiiyipitssini. It is a portrait of my community’s response to the opioid crisis. I am immensely proud of my people. We are still losing many lives due to overdose. The fight for survival is very real and the grief felt by our community is overwhelming. I continually remind myself that there is real work to do.

Only days before the Latimer story broke, Brayden Bushby, the man who killed Barbara Kentner, walked away with a manslaughter conviction. Kentner, an Anishinaabe woman, was walking on a sidewalk in Thunder Bay, Latimer’s hometown, when she was hit by a trailer hitch thrown from a moving car. After hitting Kentner, Bushby laughed and exclaimed “I got one!” 

Last week, members of the Northern Ontario Oji-Cree community of Neskantaga returned home after spending two months in a hotel, with the promise that they will soon have clean drinking water after a 25-year boil water advisory. Weeks earlier, APTN reported the story of three Indigenous sisters who all died by suicide after a child welfare agency in Ontario failed them. 

It is a beautiful thing to be Indigenous, but it also comes with the pain of settler colonialism. Trauma is something we all have to contend with. The work to undo that pain will continue long into the future.

How do we move on from this? 

I don’t know what can be expected of Latimer. She has been asked numerous times to be accountable. Ultimately, Canadian institutions need to be held to account for closing doors on countless Indigenous creatives who do not embody the necessary degree of whiteness to succeed. 

Now, more than ever, we need these institutions to listen to the Indigenous film community and follow the lead of the Indigenous Screen Office. As an Indigenous film community, we will weather this storm with that very ethos of respect, care and humility. 

To the emerging filmmakers who have been hurt by all of this, I say, keep going. You belong and you deserve space in this industry. Those of us who have been working at it a bit longer are cheering you on and will continue to do whatever we can to open doors for generations to come. Our communities need us to keep telling our stories. 

Finally, to that boy I hurt all those years ago, I hope you found your way home and I hope your people embraced you with open arms.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
Sweetmoon Photography

Filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is a writer, director, producer and actor. She is a member of the Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe, Blackfoot Confederacy) as well as Sámi from Uŋjárga. She co-wrote and co-directed The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open with Kathleen Hepburn. Tailfeathers recently appeared in Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum and stars in Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders, which will premiere in 2021. Her feature-length documentary Kimmapiiyipitssini will premiere in 2021.


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