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Michelle Latimer gives voice to First Nation, Inuit and Metis stories at TIFF

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Image: Denise Jans/Unsplash

Thomas King, author of Inconvenient Indian, is fond of reminding us, "stories is all we are." However, writer, director, producer and actor Michelle Latimer will tell you that who gets to tell those stories matters. That's what inspires Latimer, who is of Algonquin, Metis and French heritage, to use her art to tell the stories of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island.

And, those stories are sending a loud and unmistakable message to the government, institutions and people of Canada: "We want a space to live under our own governance system and to build a future for our next generations to live and thrive."

Latimer has a lot to say and it's coming through loud and clear at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where she is not only premiering her documentary, Inconvenient Indian, based on the novel by King, but also her six-episode series, Trickster, based on Eden Robinson's best-selling novel Son of a Trickster.

Tricksters, a reflection of ourselves, are integral to both productions. Latimer purposely chose Gail Maurice to play the coyote/trickster chauffeuring King around Tkaronto (Toronto).

Latimer chose the cisgender woman to portray the alter ego to Kent Monkman's Miss Chief Eagle Testickle who also appears in the documentary -- a ying to a yang if you will, giving a nod to a time before colonization when gender was more fluid.

King entertains us with the story of Coyote deceiving some ducks and convincing them to give him an ever-increasing supply of their precious feathers -- a metaphor for the unbridled gluttony, consumption and vanity of settler society that places individuality above the collective approach to community.

This parable illustrates the ever-voracious appetite of the Canadian government, the church and settlers for every last drop of Indigenous land, wisdom and spirituality.

Robert Flaherty decided that he would tell the story of the Inuit living in Canada's north. Instead, he created a work of fiction presented as reality to an unquestioning public. In 1922 he premiered his fabricated documentary, Nanook of the North. The film misrepresented how Inuit lived at the time. Flaherty created much harm with his ethnographic representation that keeps "dead Indians" locked into a never-ending stereotypical version of themselves.

Latimer reclaims the story by overlaying a woman's voice detailing the harm inflicted, and by incorporating katajjaq, or Inuit throat-singing. This art form, exclusively performed by women and once banned by the Catholic Church, is being revived and given a future by artists like Polaris Prize winner Tanya Tagaq who uses infusions of electronica, industrial and metal to create Inuk punk.

Then there's the interview with film-maker Althea Arnaquq-Baril who is actively reclaiming the art of Inuit face tattooing. This right of passage for Inuit women was almost lost, but is being revived by the daughters of residential school survivors and their daughters after them.

First Nation, Inuit and Metis women are the traditional keepers of water, children, the animals and the land, and by extension they are responsible for giving a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. However, colonial powers have put a lot of effort into silencing those voices since they arrived on these shores.

Cree artist Kent Monkman voiced the grief and torment felt by generations of Indigenous mothers when he painted The Scream, depicting the annual September abduction of Indigenous children who were taken to government-sanctioned, church-run residential schools.

According to Latimer, "We wash down a mother's grief by including the numbers and the intergenerational trauma. But every woman can empathize with this image."

While Latimer was filming on the last day of Monkman's 2017 exhibition, Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, a young First Nations mother and father entered the gallery with their two-year-old son. The boy immediately ran over to The Scream. His father lovingly picked him up and placed him in his mother's arms. Then, this family took in the pain, terror and horror playing out before them.

The imagery was not lost on Latimer who observed, "Even 40 years ago, that child would not have been with his parents. That was the ultimate moment of making this film."

Colonization has a very long history of targeting Indigenous women and their relationship to the land. In fact, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was established in order to help clear the land and keep settlers safe which inevitably led to Indigenous blood being shed -- especially that of Indigenous women -- a legacy that remains today.

The targeting of Indigenous women and girls is an issue Latimer addressed in her short film Nimmikaage (She Dances for People) (2015) which was both a requiem and an honouring of First Nations, Inuit and Metis women, highlighting their strength and resilience using a contemporary lens.

Likewise, Latimer's 2017 short documentary Nuuca chronicled the increased violence First Nations women experienced after man camps were built in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota. Over a 10-year period, violence against women and girls on the Fort Berthold Indian Reserve nearly tripled.

Insatiable colonial extraction and mistreatment of the land translates into extraction and violence against Indigenous women and their children.

And that is the perfect segue to Latimer's new CBC series, Trickster. The first two episodes of the series will premiere at TIFF.

Set in what is now known as Kitimat, British Columbia, situated on Haisla territory, Trickster weaves together the past and the present with a nod to a better future.

In 2006, Enbridge proposed transporting crude oil via super tankers through the Kitimat fjord system. A diverse alliance of Canadian settlers, the Gitga'at and other First Nations people launched a legal challenge. After a 10-year court battle, the project was defeated, but the Gitga'at First Nation was left in a precarious financial position.

During that decade, other multinational corporations discovered the tanker route and began making plans to export liquified natural gas (LNG) to Asian markets through this pristine waterway. Unfortunately, these companies learned from Enbridge's mistakes and successfully navigated the legal process.

On October 1, 2018, LNG Canada, a consortium led by Shell, announced the start of construction on a new LNG exporting plant in Kitimat. The project will be the largest private investment in Canadian history.

This is the real-life background of the town of Kitimat, population 8,131 (2016), where 16-year-old Jared divides his time between school, working part-time, financially supporting his mother and father, who both struggle with addiction, and his father's new family. Then there's his meth lab, the new foster girl protesting the LNG project, and a bevy of mystical characters who have suddenly settled in town.

It was important for Latimer to use Kitimat as the backdrop for her series. Within the four weeks that passed between scoping sites and returning to film, a man camp housing 60,000 transient refinery workers had been built. That was just one of several man camps. The impact on the women, especially Indigenous women, living in this remote town will be devastating.

Latimer used female characters like Jared's mother and his nanna, a residential school survivor, to represent the intergenerational link to the future and the matrilineal power of women who practice medicine.

According to Latimer: "There is no judgment here based on colonial stereotypes. These are nuanced characters. Both Jared's mother and grandmother are discovering that the knowledge is inside her and she needs to reconnect to actualize the knowledge that lives inside her."

Latimer's work is proof that First Nation, Inuit and Metis women are at the forefront of the vibrant Indigenous reclamation Turtle Island is experiencing. They are telling their own stories.

Inconvenient Indian premieres at TIFF on September 12 at 4:45 p.m. at the Lightbox, and will be screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival later this month.

Trickster premieres September 15 at 12:30 p.m. at the Lightbox, with an additional screening September 16 at 6 p.m., Bell Digital Cinema, before airing on CBC on October 7 at 9 p.m. ET.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Denise Jans/Unsplash

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