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Canada needs to give Indigenous stories the platform they deserve

On Feb. 3, Jesse Wente, broadcaster, activist and Director of Film Programmes for TIFF, delivered the closing keynote speech for Prime Time 2017 advocating for First Nations, Métis and Inuit representation in Canadian cinema. The following is a version of that address.

Ahnii Bozhoo.

It's always great to be back on unceded Algonquin territory. I thank them for hosting us all here today, and indeed for hosting all that we see around us every day. My ancestors feel welcome here. Miigwetch.

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You see, I'm Anishinaabe – the Algonquin are like our cousins. And my ancestors always travel with me, as do those who are yet to come: the future generations. They travel with me to, and it's for both that I speak here today, and anywhere and anytime I do one of these talks.

I'm thrilled to be here. This is my first time at Prime Time, and I certainly didn't think this was the way I'd end up here, talking to all of you. But it's great to see so many familiar faces, to meet new ones, and to be surrounded by storytellers. What I hope will become clear over the next half-hour or so is the vital importance of stories, especially now.

I landed here because of a phone conversation I had with Margueritte Pigott, Vice-President, Outreach & Strategic Initiatives for the Canadian Media Producers Association. As many of you will know, a phone conversation with Margueritte is always full of surprises, and my surprise was ending up here. This talk is taken from that conversation – so you'll understand if at points I have to put you on hold and have a conversation with eOne or Elevation; these things happen – hey, it's business.

Anyway, I get asked to talk a lot these days – about Indigenous issues, indigenous storytelling, Canada 150, and Truth and Reconciliation. And as I do this more and more, I've started to understand why.

We're at an interesting moment. The nation will be celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, and birthdays always provide a moment for reflection and self-examination. And this comes on the heels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It comes as the inquiry into the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls has just started. It comes when Indigenous voices are louder than ever, thanks to social media and alternative media, including some of the mediums you've heard about at this conference.

On Wednesday night, more than 400 people attended a screening of RISE – a new series about Indigenous resistance in Standing Rock, Oak Flats, and elsewhere – at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Earlier this month, Sundance premiered nine Indigenous works, the most in the film festival's history.

The interest is there, because after 150 years, we're finally trying to know each other. That's what Canada 150 is: the first time in its history, really, that Canada seems to be trying to know its Indigenous peoples. Truly know them. And what's one of the best ways to get to know someone? Through stories.

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Of course, colonial states know that – that's why they obscure and steal stories, and create new ones, to reinforce the colonial state.

As Canada celebrates 150 years, many Indigenous people won't be joining them. This is not our anniversary to celebrate. And what are we celebrating anyway? The reality is that everything we would celebrate about Canada is built on the violent oppression of Indigenous people. All of the privileges of being Canadian, which we hold so dear, exist at the cost of the culture, sovereignty, land, language, and lives of this land's original people.

That what we're reconciling IS Canada 150. And the role of stories is immense because it was almost 150 years ago – 137, to be exact – that those stories were taken from us. The Indian Act was passed in 1876, when this country was only nine. The Indian Act is what created the reserve system, gave the government control of Indigenous identity, and entrenched the residential school system. Four years later, when Canada became a teenager, it amended the Indian Act and introduced a law called The Potlatch Ban, which outlawed Indigenous ceremonies such as the potlatch and the sundance. It made easy the theft of our cultural artifacts for display in colonial museums; it stole our stories. The law stood for more than 70 years until 1951. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada lived and died during that period, having never heard their own stories. Many of our stories were, and are, lost.

Now, of course, I'm angry about that – among other things that this colonial state did to my people, did to my family, in the name of progress for other people. But you know who else should be angry? You.

Colonialism has robbed me, and many, of our land, of our language, of our culture, but it's also robbed you of those things. How much richer would your understanding of Canada be if you had these stories? How much greater would this year's celebration be if we already knew each other?

The Algonquin people have been on the land you and I are on today for more than 13,000 years. 13,000. Suddenly 150 doesn't seem as impressive, right?

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Think of all that knowledge that has been lost – not just to me, but to you.

Imagine if you knew our stories already. You might know us. And if Canada truly knew us, it would be harder to hate, easier to love. Maybe we would be equals instead of mascots for your sports teams and your summer camps. Maybe it would be harder to let our communities go without clean drinking water – there's more than 93 of them, last time I checked. Maybe it would be harder to break the treaties – the true foundational documents of Canada. It would be harder to let our children go with less than all other children. It would be harder to steal our children. Maybe if Canada knew our stories, it wouldn't stand by and watch our children take their own lives.

Canadians should be angry that this was taken from them as well. It's kept you strangers on the land you now call home.

Listen, I'm not saying this is always easy – that hearing our stories after all these years isn't hard. Our stories have pain and trauma. That is the truth we face.

But our stories also have everything storytellers like yourselves love. There's romance and adventure, action and drama, monsters and ghosts, sex and violence – all the elements to make great stories. Sellable stories. Stories that you, Canada and the world, are going to want to hear.

The truth is, I'm not actually sure the government knows what reconciliation is. They talk about it a lot, because I think they want it to be one thing: a forgiveness for past wrongs, an acknowledgment that "we're going to move on or get over it."

That's wrong, and it points out one of the fundamental challenges of reconciliation in Canada: that colonial governments are not built to reconcile – quite the opposite. And while the minister can come here and say that reconciliation is a major part of their social contract, that it's a major element of Canada 150, while she is saying that to you, I looked down at my phone yesterday and read an article about how the Chief of Black Lake, a small community of 2,000 in northern Saskatchewan, is dealing with the fallout from 30 suicide attempts in her community in the last six weeks. Thirty youth attempted suicide. Does that sound like reconciliation is a priority, when mental health services in the north are still grossly underfunded – even cut – in these communities?

No, I don't think reconciliation will come from the government, or come from the large institutions of this nation. They aren't built for it, and if they were honest, they would admit: they don't really want to do it. They're terrified of the cost. That's colonialism, folks; it measures the value of Indigenous lives on their costs – and let me tell you, the vast majority of the time, the cost is perceived as too high, and the value of the lives deemed too low, to be worth it.

That's why so much of my focus is on the individual and what they can do, and why I came here to speak to you like this. I have many friends, colleagues and business partners in this room, and you are far more likely to impact and move reconciliation forward than any government.

In this room are the storytellers. I believe you can help make this change. By helping us – and letting us – tell our stories.

When my grandmother came out of that school in northern Ontario, she came out ashamed of who she was; she came out without her language; and she came out without our stories.

Our stories are our survival.

That's why it's so important to us that we get a chance to tell them ourselves. That's why some of us are lobbying – hard – for dedicated funds to tell our stories. Because for us, this isn't about making a movie deal or getting a network series, this is about our survival, and Canada's – because if you think this nation can exist without Indigenous people, then you just haven't been paying attention.

Reconciliation isn't about doing new things, as TRC Commissioner Marie Wilson says. Reconciliation is about doing all things differently.

That means centering indigenous voices and artists in our own stories. As some of us are fond of saying: nothing about us without us. If we want to reconcile, we have to understand that consultation is not consent, and this notion applies not just to pipelines and mining operations, but to our stories as well.

Unlocking these stories can be tough. There are protocols that need to be followed, permissions that need to be granted. Our stories are sacred, and sometimes it's the duty of one specific family to be the keepers of a story. For it to be told will take time, and a different kind of effort, and new kind of trust. But, I'll tell you what: your story will be better for it. YOU will better for it, and Canada will be better for it. That's reconciliation in action.

I know there has been much discussion around the future of storytelling here this week, from the forms it might take –VR, AR, full-on Videodrome – as well as where it will be shown and how it will be funded. Nothing more fun than to talk about OTT and ISP content-creation obligations, amiright Reynolds? Good times, good times. These are important topics, vital to the future of our industry, but when I think of the future of storytelling, I generally don't think about where the money is going to come from, or what format the story will take – and I love videogames, movies, VR. I love all of it and can't wait to partake in all of it. But it's not how I see the future of storytelling.

To me the future of storytelling has less to do with the money or the format, and far more to do with who is telling the story and what story they are telling. To me, the future of storytelling is about seeking out new storytellers with new stories, and this isn't only about Indigenous storytellers and stories, although obviously that's my passion. It's also about women – and we've seen a lot of efforts behind that – and about all marginalized groups, those that struggle to gain access, those that don't see themselves in the stories already being told. That's the future of storytelling. I hear a lot about how the scripts are bad and the stories are not strong enough. Are we looking in the same places or are we looking in new places, for new voices? Because the future of storytelling should not look like the past of storytelling. As leaders in this industry you have to make that change, and I believe that you can, because I believe that storytellers, in their hearts, already know the power of story. You already know that stories are remarkable tools of empathy, and, in this moment, perhaps more than we've had to face in many, many years, we are witness to a gaping need for empathy.

While there is great reason to be afraid right now, that should only reinforce the need to tell these stories, urgently, because again, if we truly knew our neighbours, it would make it harder to go into a mosque with a gun.

I want to leave you with one last thought.

I look out at you, and I see a room full of creators – people who make things, who make art, who tell stories. And I want to say to you: you are already doing something important, you're creating.

Colonialism is an extraction business. It extracts what it wants – from the land, from culture, from stories, and from people – and discards the rest.

One of the great acts of decolonization is to create. Make art. Tell stories.

Let's spend the next 150 years creating and not extracting. If we do that, together, then, 150 years from now, our ancestors will truly have something to celebrate together.

Chi Miigwetch for listening.

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