One year after the National Film Board of Canada announced its plans to redefine its relationship with Indigenous people, the organization has made sizable steps in its mission − but acknowledges myriad challenges are still to come.
Last June, the NFB unveiled a three-year Indigenous action plan. It pledged, among other initiatives, to allocate 15 per cent of the NFB’s production budgets to projects by Indigenous filmmakers by 2020, and to ensure Indigenous people represented 4 per cent of its 400-member staff by 2025. (According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 census, almost 5 per cent of Canadians identify as aboriginal.)
In an update that the federal organization will release on Wednesday morning − one day before National Indigenous Peoples Day − the NFB reports that spending on Indigenous projects has hit 10 per cent, with 35 productions in development. Yet, the NFB has hired just two new Indigenous staff members, one in production and another in marketing. To reach representational equity by 2025, the institution will need to hire 12 others. (In 2017, the organization had only one Indigenous producer, award-winning filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, director of last year’s landmark documentary Our People Will Be Healed.)
“We launched this last June, and already the first year has shown major results, and on every level, people here are deeply involved in this transformation,” NFB commissioner Claude Joli-Coeur said in an interview the day before the update was released. “I’m quite proud of the environment we’re creating to change things.”
On the matter of production budgets, Joli-Coeur said he was confident the NFB will hit its 15 per cent target by 2020, although he added that “production is not an exact science. Not everything is the same scope, or has the same budget.”
“The real ambitious part is the target linked to the overall Indigenous population of Canada,” Joli-Coeur added. “Our HR department has been working diligently with specialized groups to reach the Indigenous communities, which might not normally be looking at us. And not only on the creative side, but the finance side, HR, legal. My dream is that we’d have Indigenous employees working in every sector, so that there is a wide influence.”
The action plan was sparked by recommendations from the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was announced just after the creation of the Indigenous Screen Office, a joint initiative between the NFB, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the Canadian Media Fund, Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Media Producers Association, the CBC and private broadcasters and funds. That office, intended to ensure Indigenous access to film, television and new-media production and distribution, is led by former Toronto International Film Festival programmer Jesse Wente.
The NFB’s update also emphasizes the development of a new Indigenous cinema section at NFB.ca, which offers more than 200 Indigenous titles for online streaming, the creation of the Indigenous Voices and Reconciliation Learning Program intended for “students, educators, and lifelong learners,” which is set to launch in 2019, and increased Indigenous cultural awareness among NFB staff.
“The one thing that is a bit more complicated is the training of our employees on Indigenous culture,” said Joli-Coeur, who has been with the NFB for almost 15 years. “It’s more than just attending a three-hour session, but training that requires time and ambition, so that everybody by 2020 gets a good knowledge of Indigenous culture and all the things we sometimes take for granted. There is so much to learn.”
Upcoming Indigenous-led productions from the NFB include Obomsawin’s 51st film, as well as Elle-Maija Tailfeathers’ documentary Kimaapiipitsin and Michelle Latimer’s The Inconvenient Indian, based on Thomas King’s best-selling book.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary as Our People Will Be Healed: The Road Forward. In fact, the title is Our People Will Be Healed. This version has been corrected.