The Canadian film and television industry has been rocked following allegations that prominent filmmaker and “Inconvenient Indian” director Michelle Latimer is not Indigenous, as she has claimed to be for the past 20 years.
The hurt and anger from the Indigenous filmmaking community that followed on social media has been palpable, drawing further attention to the need for systemic change as awards bodies and the funding arms Latimer has benefited from begin conversations about where to go next.
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In an investigative piece published on Dec. 17, CBC News revealed Kitigan Zibi members refute Latimer’s claims to be of “Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Quebec.” The news outlet also examined census records showing that Latimer’s grandfather was not Indigenous or Métis as she previously claimed, but French-Canadian. And a genealogist and researcher with an expertise in French-Canadian families independently examined Latimer’s heritage to reveal she has only two Indigenous ancestors — Marguerite Pigarouiche and Euphrosine-Madeleine Nicolet, who lived in the 17th century. All other family members were “easily identifiable as French Canadians, Irish, Scottish.”
In other words, Michelle Latimer is white.
In response, the filmmaker, who has never provided full details of her claimed Indigenous identity in previous interviews, issued a statement saying she has always relied on family lore but has now hired a professional genealogist to look into her true background in the wake of these allegations.
“I know that when questions like these are raised, it hurts our entire community and undermines the years of hard work that so many have contributed towards raising Indigenous voices,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I take responsibility for the strain this conversation is having on the people who have supported me, and I apologize as well for any negative impact on my peers in the Indigenous filmmaking community.”
Latimer’s work as a filmmaker, director and producer has been gaining clout recently. Her award-winning TIFF documentary “Inconvenient Indian” had recently been selected to screen at Sundance 2021, while the CBC drama “Trickster,” based on the series of novels by Indigenous writer Eden Robinson, was renewed for a second season in Canada and picked up in the U.S. by The CW.
The day after Latimer released her statement, producers Danis Goulet, who is Indigenous, and Tony Elliott announced they had resigned from “Trickster” and author Robinson issued a statement of her own. “I’m so embarrassed. I feel like such a dupe,” she wrote. “I don’t know how to deal with the anger, disappointment and stress. As wretched as this moment is, I’d rather know the truth.”
Hours later, Latimer, who has retained high-profile crisis management firm Navigator — the same firm disgraced Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi hired in 2014 — also stepped down from the series. (Latimer declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Now, the future of “Trickster” is unknown.
In a statement shared with Variety, CBC said, “What emerged has, directly or indirectly, had an impact on the producers, cast, crew, writers, author and many Indigenous communities.” The public broadcaster said it will work with producer Sienna Films to “engage with community members and other key stakeholders to determine the future of ‘Trickster.'”
Meanwhile, the National Film Board (NFB), which produced and distributes “Inconvenient Indian,” revealed on Tuesday that it is pulling the film from Sundance and all other distribution. “Over the coming weeks and months, we will continue to dialogue and engage with Indigenous communities to explore an accountable path forward for the film,” said the NFB.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuk filmmaker whom Latimer interviewed for “Inconvenient Indian,” tells Variety she knew in advance about the CBC article, and spoke with the director before its publication to give her the benefit of the doubt — something she wanted to do “so badly.” But earlier this month, when Latimer accepted Canada’s DOC Institute’s BMO-DOC Vanguard Award, a prize that includes $40,000 in in-kind production services and a $1,000 cash prize, she was left “incredibly disappointed.” (Latimer agreed to give back the award on Wednesday after the DOC Institute requested its return.)
“She just disappointed at every turn,” says Arnaquq-Baril, who won the same award in 2016. “I’ve just come to form a picture of somebody who is really carefully trying to manage the PR around the situation, and not putting that same care into the communities that she falsely claimed or the authors whose work she optioned. I had a sense that she knew there were serious questions and she knew she was making statements about her Indigeneity that she couldn’t know for sure if they were true or not.”
Arnaquq-Baril reveals she would never have agreed to be interviewed by a non-Indigenous filmmaker or handed over all of her footage for “Inconvenient Indian” given the subject material. “I’m upset as a subject in the film, I’m upset as an Inuk filmmaker, and I’m furious as a documentary filmmaker. I am incredibly proud to be a documentary filmmaker. And for her to gain access to people and communities on false pretenses is an offense to the artform.”
Many other Indigenous filmmakers and community members also declined to be interviewed or preferred to speak off the record, noting that while they still feel hurt and anger, they want to proceed with kindness and leave it up to members of the Kitigan Zibi community to claim or disclaim Latimer as their own.
But others compared Latimer’s lying by omission to previous pretendians (those who claim Indigenous ancestry without the evidence to prove it) like actor Johnny Depp, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or novelist Joseph Boyden. The harmful history of white people claiming and capitalizing on Indigenous heritage can be traced years back to figures like Grey Owl, a conservationist and trapper who rose to fame in the 1920s and 1930s. Grey Owl’s real name was Archibald Stansfeld Belaney and he was born in Britain.
“This is something that our Indigenous communities have been dealing with for a long time,” said Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, a Mohawk actor from Kahnawake, Que. whose detailed response to the Latimer expose on Twitter has since gone viral.
Jacobs argued that if a person needs a genealogist to tell them they have a small amount of “Native blood” then they are simply not Indigenous.
“Native American ancestry is not just race. It’s not just DNA. It’s society. We’re sovereign nations and we have our own right to self-determination and in determining who is from our communities. To simply peg it off as, ‘Oh, I’ve hired a genealogist and I have a native ancestor from the 1600s does not mean that you are part of that community,” Jacobs tells Variety.
“When I walk into native spaces, if you claim a nation, generally, we just believe you because so rarely has there ever been a benefit to claiming native,” she continues. “Whereas now in Canada, there are so many grants and there are so many different forms of reparation, so there’s a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who have a small amount of ancestry [but] who’ve never grown up with the experience of being an Indigenous person, who are seizing these opportunities for their own personal gain. And I fundamentally believe that’s wrong.”
Jacobs advises that, going forward, funding bodies should ask applicants to distinguish whether they are Indigenous or if they have Indigenous ancestry; question which community claims them back (and verify those claims); and hire more Indigenous people to work on the production side. It’s also important, she adds, to make space for honesty and ensure no one is above question or criticism.
“It’s really a double-edged sword,” says Drew Hayden Taylor, an Anishnawbe playwright, novelist, writer and documentary filmmaker who worked with Latimer when she appeared in one of his plays in Thunder Bay, Ont.
“There are so many perspectives. So many amazing government grants or funding agencies have a thing where you check off a box and say what you are, and people can check it off without having accurate representation or proof,” adds Hayden Taylor. “Whereas on the other side, being asked to constantly prove you’re native is also equally reprehensible and insulting. It’s this weird dichotomy.”
For Arnaquq-Baril, the onus isn’t on her filmmaking community or the funding arms. The safeguards in place are adequate, she says, and as a community the industry has worked hard to develop protocols and relationships with colonial institutions.
In this situation, she places all blame on Latimer herself. “She is not a young, up-and-coming filmmaker. She is at the top of her game and spent an enormous amount of time around the Indigenous film community when we debate the ethics of filmmaking in this industry,” she reveals.
“We’ve all discussed this too intensely. So at this point in her career, there’s no way she wasn’t aware of her obligation to be honest about how close she is to her community and the fact that she hadn’t confirmed her connection yet,” she adds.
“It’s not just Indigenous filmmakers and communities; it’s non-Indigenous filmmakers and producers as well that she collaborated with,” Arnaquq-Baril continues. “She’s thrown years of work and beautiful, thoughtful craft down the tubes because she didn’t have the nerve to be honest about her heritage.”
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