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Kerry Swanson, Indigenous Screen Office head. Credit: Redworks Photography

Kerry Swanson, Indigenous Screen Office head, says the ISO is in a precarious position after the latest federal budget offered a $40-million funding boost to the Canada Media Fund but made no mention of the ISO.Redworks Photography

The Indigenous Screen Office of Canada, an independent funding organization designed to support the telling of Indigenous-led stories across film, television and digital media, has issued a “letter of disappointment” to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland and Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez after the ISO was excluded from the latest federal budget.

In the ISO’s letter, sent last Thursday, the organization said that “forcing ISO to wait until the last possible moment to find out if we have our funding renewed jeopardizes our hiring and retention capabilities, makes it impossible to plan strategically, and puts an undue burden of stress on our leadership team.”

The ISO, whose current three-year funding commitment of $13-million per year from Heritage expires March 31, 2024, the end of its next fiscal year, is seeking increased and permanent funding. (Its original request for funding in 2019 was $27-million per year as a permanent federal allotment.)

“We are getting close to the edge of the funding cliff,” Kerry Swanson, chief executive officer of the ISO, said in an interview. “Our contribution agreement with the government requires us to spend all the money we receive in each fiscal year. As the next federal budget isn’t due until close to the end of our fiscal year, we’re now in a very precarious situation.”

The ISO was created in 2017, in the wake of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the mandate from the federal government to support Indigenous narrative sovereignty. Formed as a joint initiative between the National Film Board, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the Canadian Media Fund, Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Media Producers Association, the CBC and private broadcasters and funds, the ISO relies on Ottawa for its core operational funding.

According to the ISO’s new letter and its 2021-22 annual report, in the two years since the organization received its federal funding allocation, it has delivered more than $24.6-million to more than 320 First Nations, Inuit and Metis storytellers and content creators across the country, with 88 per cent of its budget delivered directly to recipients as it continues to run “a lean organization” of 10 full-time employees based across the country.

Since its inception, the ISO has built partnerships with Netflix, Amazon Studios, Google, the Sundance Native Filmmakers Lab and other cultural institutions. It has also helped fund Uvagut TV, the first all-Indigenous language broadcaster in the country.

“You can see the incredible amount of work that we have accomplished in a very short period of time, and this lack of inclusion in the budget unnecessarily undermines our work – not just for us, but the hundreds of Indigenous storytellers and organizations that we support,” said Swanson, who is originally from Northern Ontario, is a citizen of Michipicoten First Nation and has worked in Indigenous arts and culture for two decades, including her time as executive director of the imagineNATIVE Film festival in Toronto.

The latest federal budget offered a $40-million funding boost to the Canada Media Fund over two years to “make funding more open to traditionally under-represented voices and to increase funding for French-language content,” but made no mention of the ISO.

“Every relevant metric available demonstrates our success, and yet we find ourselves once again in the existential position of having to make the case for our value and our worth,” the ISO’s letter states. “While we support targeted investments for equity, diversity and inclusion announced in the budget, it does raise the question: why is it not a top priority to provide sustainable support to the only funding body that embodies Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in the screen sector, that is led by the people it represents?”

Laura Scaffidi, press secretary for Mr. Rodriguez, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that the Heritage Minister “has been given a mandate to provide the Indigenous Screen Office with additional ongoing funding so more Indigenous stories can be told and seen. Budget 2021 provided $40.1-million to support the Indigenous Screen Office. The Minister is committed to delivering on these priorities throughout the full length of his mandate.”

Ms. Scaffidi added that “people across Canada should be able to recognize themselves in the stories that are told on their screens. This means that all creatives – regardless of language spoken, ethnicity, age, or geography – should have more opportunities to participate in and benefit from a more inclusive system. That’s what Bill C-11 will do. Tech giants will have to pay their fair share towards our culture – including towards Indigenous artists and creators.”

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