After five months of silence, Michelle Latimer is ready to talk.
This past December, the Canadian filmmaker became the centre of an explosive debate about identity, representation, diversity and opportunity. On Dec. 17, CBC News published an investigation that scrutinized Ms. Latimer’s Indigenous heritage, focusing on her ties to Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin community in western Quebec. The story, reported by Jorge Barrera and Ka’nhehsi:io Deer, included accusations of exploitation and appropriation by members of the Indigenous community.
Hours before that report was published, Ms. Latimer, who in previous interviews said that she was of Algonquin, Métis and French-Canadian heritage, released an apology on Facebook in which she admitted that she “made a mistake” in naming Kitigan Zibi as her family’s community before “doing the work to formally verify this linkage.”
The story quickly rippled across the country’s film and television industry. Ms. Latimer resigned from CBC’s Trickster, the series that she co-created and directed, based on the books by Haisla and Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson.
The National Film Board and 90th Parallel Productions withdrew Ms. Latimer’s documentary Inconvenient Indian from distribution, including a planned Sundance Film Festival premiere. (The NFB said in a statement last week that it, along with co-producers 90th Parallel Productions and Jesse Wente, “have been engaged in ongoing dialogue with the Indigenous participants who appear on screen, in order to explore an accountable path forward for the film. We are currently progressing in this process, which will include the NFB Indigenous Advisory Committee before a final decision is made.”)
Ms. Latimer served the CBC with a notice of libel, raising “grave concerns” about the fairness and accuracy of its reporting. And the CBC cancelled the planned second season of Trickster.
In the time since, Ms. Latimer commissioned a genealogical investigation from Sébastien Malette, an associate professor in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, and Siomonn Pulla, an associate professor in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University.
In their 27-page preliminary report shared with The Globe and Mail, the experts in Indigenous rights and Métis history, who both worked pro-bono, confirm Ms. Latimer’s Indigenous ancestry through “two ancestral lines that run through her paternal and maternal grandparents.” The authors note that her ancestral connections are “rooted in the small historical community of Baskatong that was known for its Algonquin and Métis population.” And they add that the “family and oral traditions that have shaped Michelle Latimer’s Algonquin Métis identity are consistent with the documented history, culture and struggles of a larger non-status and Métis diaspora located in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys.”
In an interview, Prof. Malette underlined the “contentious” politics surrounding Métis communities in Quebec, which are not recognized by the Métis National Council. Pointing to the 2003 Powley decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which states that “self-identification, ancestral connection, and community acceptance are factors which define Métis identity for the purpose of claiming Métis rights [under the Constitution],” Prof. Malette says that Ms. Latimer “finds herself in a difficult situation in terms of politics and treaty negotiations.”
Now, Ms. Latimer is ready to talk. In a wide-ranging and emotional conversation with The Globe last week, Ms. Latimer discussed her actions, her past and her hopes for her future.
When the CBC story broke, you declined all interview requests. What has changed between then and today?
I listened to what the community and my colleagues asked me, and I interpreted that to be to take a step back to really investigate my heritage. To be clear: I had no reasons to question what I understood to be true of my grandfather’s heritage, what he told me growing up. But I understood that wasn’t enough for some people – that they wanted verification. Part of how I did that was reaching out directly to the community of Kitigan Zibi, but also to colleagues and elders and knowledge-keepers. I hired a genealogist. I engaged with historians. That takes time, especially in a thoughtful way.
What have the past five months been like?
Imagine if everything you knew about yourself to be true was called into question in a very public way. It shakes your confidence. I’m grateful that everything I knew to be true is true, and I’m able to verify that. But that deep questioning was devastating, and not in a way that’s just about me. If you knew that an investigation of this sort could hurt your family, how quickly would you rush that?
Why did you decide to talk with me at The Globe, instead of Jorge Barrera and Ka’nhehsi:io Deer at the CBC?
Sometimes your decisions are led by a gut feeling. This is a sensitive discussion and I felt like I needed to be able to trust the person I was talking to. Some of that trust was broken and called into question by how the CBC approached this story from the very beginning.
The authors of the report confirm your Indigenous identity according to their three criteria: “self-identification, ancestral connections and community acceptance (actual or potential).” (See footnote #1) But the CBC story quotes Nick Ottawa, lands membership and estates administrator at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, who says: “Just claiming to be Algonquin is not enough. You have to be validated by the community.” Have you spoken with and been validated by members of Kitigan Zibi?
I have spoken with members of the Kitigan Zibi community. One of the scariest things in coming back to one’s identity is feeling like, “Will there be acceptance? Will I be a stranger, especially because I didn’t grow up in that community?” But then there’s the beautiful side of it – the people who have reached out and helped me. I had a wonderful conversation early in this process with Nick, who said, “It’s okay to be searching, to be reconnecting.” I’ve come across my own family members who are kin, Annie Smith St. Georges (see footnote #2) being one. Some of the clarity for me is understanding the historical connections of Baskatong, a community that was flooded in 1927. I knew that from my grandfather, but what I didn’t fully understand was that dispersion created more of a diaspora, where people could practice their culture and that culture became the community. What I’ve come to understand more in this process is that a lot of non-status and Métis people, that’s their reality. What we’re talking about is dispersed people whose culture becomes the anchor of who they are. And that is accurate to my experience.
Do you now have acceptance and validation from the Kitigan Zibi community?
I want to be clear that I think part of the misunderstanding is that I did not intend to come across as an enrolled or status member of Kitigan Zibi. And immediately once I realized that people thought that, I apologized to the community. I was simply trying to situate geographically where my family comes from, which I was asked to do. I’m a non-status Algonquin of mixed blood, Métis, French-Canadian heritage. And that’s what I can stand by with truth.
The issue stems from an Aug. 14, 2020, NFB press release for Inconvenient Indian, which states that you’re of “Algonquin, Métis, and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki) Quebec.” That was the first time that you’d ever referenced Kitigan Zibi. Why was it added?
I was asked to be very specific by the producers of Inconvenient Indian. Prior to that, I understood that Kitigan Zibi was once called Maniwaki reserve. But Maniwaki is also a town, and a geographic area. Around the time that my grandfather died, Maniwaki changed their name to Kitigan Zibi. The stories I heard from [my grandfather] were always “Maniwaki, Maniwaki, Maniwaki.” So I was primed to be specific about a geographical area that specified my heritage. The closest thing that could accurately reflect my Algonquin ancestry of non-status was to name Kitigan Zibi. But I realized that caused harm, and it was a mistake to put it in those words.
Prior to this instance, had anyone – collaborators, producers, industry gatekeepers – ever asked you to specify that information?
It’s Indigenous protocol when introducing yourself to say where you’re from and who you are. I’ve always said I’m a non-status Métis Algonquin and I come from the Maniwaki area. When I say that I grew up in Thunder Bay, people assume I’m from Fort William First Nation. I always clarify that I grew up in Thunder Bay, and didn’t grow up in Maniwaki. If there were questions, they were never directed to me directly.
You’re not a fresh-faced filmmaker. In your two decades in the Indigenous arts sector, did you not ever take the time to investigate your family lore and history? Why did it have to be until you were compelled to do so?
I never had reason to question what my family had told me. I’d again say that going back to identity is complex. It unearths a lot of things in families. What if you don’t have a way in? How do you know how to do this? People say, “Well, you should know.” But I have to admit it’s a scary process. The reality with non-status people is that, for many years, they’ve been fighting for recognition of who they are and where they’re from. Identity is not just about ancestral connection. It is about our values and our worldview and how those are incorporated. I grew up in the North, I grew up with those teachings. And that, for me, is what makes me Indigenous.
When you announced that you were commissioning a genealogy report, there was a sentiment in the Indigenous community that even if distant genetic ancestry was confirmed, being Indigenous – of truly representing the community – meant having that lived experience. How does this report answer that?
That’s a very personal question. Lived experience can mean many things. And that’s a great question because it asks us not only how we define Indigeneity but how do we define community? What I liked about this report is it looked at the oral history and not just self-identification as “I identify as this and this is my individual right,” but self-identification as “I have an oral history, I have a cultural practice, this is what informs my worldview.” And then ancestral connections, which looks at a blood connection and also kinship, and makes up a bigger totality. And then community acceptance. It’s not a Twitter answer in however many characters.
I’m going to read some comments from people who you’ve worked with closely. Actor Gitz Derange from your Viceland series Rise said that he felt “duped” and “used,” that his “skin colour and my ancestral lines were used to further” your career. Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who was featured in Inconvenient Indian, said that she’s “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.” Eden Robinson said that she didn’t “know how to deal with the anger, disappointment and stress.” What do you say to these individuals?
[Long pause.] There has been so much hurt, stress and pain created around this conversation and this focus on my identity. The CBC article painted a picture of someone who is misrepresenting themselves as a fake and a liar. All I can say is that I never misrepresented who I was. I never intended to mislead anyone who I worked with. I tell Indigenous stories because that feels true to my experience, and it’s what I love to do. The fact that I’ve been painted as someone who has been profiting for my own gain feels so unfair and misguided.
First of all, you don’t become an artist to become rich. And second of all, when you go into an interview [as a documentarian], you’re giving of yourself. It’s not a one-sided conversation. I promised Eden and Alethea to hold their stories with honour and respect. I feel like I was able to do that, but the fact that they’re questioning that because of these attestations made in the CBC article and then the further social-media backlash is devastating. I wish I could do something to fix that or mend that. But all I can do is to speak my truth and hope that they receive it in the way it’s given.
Inconvenient Indian author Thomas King has yet to make a public statement about the situation. Have you heard from him?
I’ve talked with him on multiple occasions. Thomas has been a great support because he understands the nuance of issues. Inconvenient Indian is about identity. He did communicate to me that he’d like to see the film out there.
Do you know whether that will ever happen?
My understanding is the NFB is involved in a consultation process right now with advisers and people who were in the film, and they’re trying to figure a way forward. It was communicated to me that they’re having some kind of circle, whether a talking circle or a restorative justice circle, to determine that. I have not been invited in that circle.
In a new personal statement that you provided ahead of this interview, you say that you’ve never received an award “specifically designated for Indigenous artists,” and that all of your “self-produced work that has received any kind of Indigenous-specific grant support has been assessed and approved by professional, established Indigenous administrators and/or artists.” Do you believe that the opportunities that have come your way (see footnote #3) not only served your development as an artist but also best served the communities that they were intended to represent and benefit and amplify?
I am a non-status Algonquin, Métis and French-Canadian person, so if it said only that status native people are allowed to apply, I wouldn’t have applied. Everything that I’ve applied for I was able to based on my qualifications. I was never asked to provide proof. I know that the Indigenous Screen Office is undergoing a consultation process to describe what might that be in the future. But at that point, I identified who I am and I was eligible.
I hope that my work has shown my intent. I’ve certainly not tried to take any opportunities from others, and the opportunities that I have been afforded, I have tried to use to bring other people up. With Trickster, it was very important to me to have Indigenous people across every department. We created a director program in which three women, who were paid, shadowed me and who in the second season would be promoted. In the beginning as an artist, you’re just struggling to get your work out there. The beautiful thing about having some measure of success is you get to create more opportunities for others.
When did you become aware that CBC was cancelling Trickster?
I resigned from Trickster in the hopes that it would move forward without me. The heat of what was happening to me, I didn’t want it on the show. My understanding is that CBC and Sienna Films engaged in a consultation process with the stakeholders as well as the actors and the majority of people wanted it to go forward. But it was not a unanimous decision, so the show was cancelled. I wasn’t part of those discussions.
Trickster received 15 nominations at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards. You co-created the series, you directed all six episodes. You didn’t receive a single CSA nomination, and it wasn’t nominated for Best Drama Series. What is the backstory?
The CSAs disqualified Trickster from ... well, I guess they disqualified me. I asked under what grounds they pursued that decision. I was basically told the decision was final and the consultation around the decision was confidential. What was most unfair was, how does a series get 15 nominations and not be considered for best series? That undermines the work of hundreds of people.
In your new statement, you write: “The cruelty and psychological violence of cancel culture has no place in any community, Indigenous or not.” But I want to ask about the term “cancel culture,” which seems a refashioning of what could be called “consequence culture.” As in: you admit that you did not put in the work of verifying the family connections to Kitigan Zibi before naming the community, and now you’re dealing with the consequences of that action. Is that “cancel culture”?
Cancel culture as I understand it is when a person in all their entirety is extinguished, or the intent is to extinguish them, based on opinions. A lot of times that’s not a nuanced conversation. It evolves over social media or lacks the context. When we’re talking about identity and community, especially with the historical nuances that this country has, we’re talking about something that requires a nuanced approach. I would like to see more compassion afforded, and I don’t think that compassion is happening on Twitter.
So, what do you want to see happen now?
I just want to move forward in a good way. It’s important to me for the people I have relationships with – my producing partners, the actors I worked with – that I speak my truth and they have that context. I just want to be a storyteller and artist. If I couldn’t tell stories, I don’t know what else there would be for me.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Notes on this interview
1: The report commissioned by Ms. Latimer traces her Indigenous ancestry through the “Nicolet” and “Pigarouiche” lines. Those are the same ancestral lines identified by Dominique Ritchot, a researcher who independently reconstructed Ms. Latimer’s genealogy and is used as a source in the initial CBC News investigation. Ms. Ritchot told CBC News that “most of [Ms. Latimer’s] ancestors were quite easily identifiable as French Canadians, Irish, Scottish,” implying an insufficient ancestral heritage. In an interview with The Globe, Prof. Malette said that the CBC’s framing of Ms. Ritchot’s work “plays on the populist prejudices that these roots would be too far or not concentrated enough to make a significant cultural transmission. ... It takes an expertise in terms of comparative analysis and the understanding of Indigenous progressions of identities to announce, especially in the media, that this person is Indigenous and this person isn’t.”
2: In a Facebook post, Annie Smith St. Georges, an Algonquin Elder from Kitigan Zibi known for her work with the National Arts Centre, wrote that Ms. Latimer was “the grand niece of my grandpa and grandma, who were originally from Mishomis Baskatong.”
3: In 2007, Ms. Latimer was the recipient of the LIFT/ImagineNATIVE Mentorship. In 2014, her short film The Underground won the Best Short Film Award at ImagineNATIVE, though Ms. Latimer notes that the project’s production team included three Indigenous producers and was “therefore eligible to receive the prize beyond my affiliation as director.” In 2018, Telefilm invested $3-million-plus in four Indigenous feature films, including Ms. Latimer’s drama Forgotten, which has yet to be produced. (The funds were never accessed and were redirected back to Telefilm, as the filmmaking team could not produce the film in the required timeframe.) In 2019, the NFB announced that it hit its target of allocating at least 15 per cent (around $2-million) of its production spending to Indigenous-led projects, and included Inconvenient Indian in its 40-project slate.
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