Why Canada Needs a Feature Film about Métis History

On March 26, 1885, two shots rang out on a snow-covered hill near the settlement of Duck Lake, in what is now Saskatchewan. The man who fired those fateful shots was a volunteer recruit for the Canadian army named Joe McKay. The men who were struck by his bullets were a French Métis named Isadore Dumont and a Cree chief named Assiwiyin. They were carrying white flags, and had been sent by their general, Gabriel Dumont, to approach the small group of North West Mounted Police, led by police superintendent Lief Crozier. When the smoke cleared from the gunfire, Dumont and Assiwiyin were dead.

This unprovoked attack initiated the North West Rebellion, a civil war that would eventually pit a 5,000-man Canadian military and police force against 500 Métis and First Nations. The Métis had reached the limit of their patience after several years of asking the Canadian government to grant them title to the land they’d cleared, farmed and settled. With the aggressive westward expansion of the CPR railway and the growing number of European immigrants sweeping across the west and laying claim to land, the Métis felt compelled to ask an exiled Métis leader named Louis Riel to return to Canada to help them make their case. When even this radical act did not generate a positive response from John A. McDonald’s government, the Métis formed a provisional government and took up arms.

During the two months it took for the army and police force to quash the rebels, 60 Métis and First Nations and 58 Canadian soldiers and police officers lost their lives. In the aftermath of the uprising, Louis Riel would be tried for high treason, convicted and hanged. Six Cree warriors would be hanged, and two important chiefs, Poundmaker and Big Bear, would languish in a federal jail.

Three of the casualties in the North West Rebellion were my direct relatives – Isadore Dumont, my first cousin (three times removed) and uncles Auguste Laframboise and Ambroise Dumont. Although several generations separate me from these relatives, I have inherited a strong historic connection and sympathies for the French Métis, Cree and European settlers who joined together on the Métis side of this civil war. 

In 2010, while on a flight that took me on a direct path over Canada’s prairie provinces, I observed from 35,000 feet a vast landscape divided into the neatly defined square sections of land. This is the method of surveying that the Métis had so vehemently opposed in 1885. Their unheeded request to the government surveyors was to section the Northwest Territories using the French style of land division that featured narrow sections of land that each had river access and were designed to keep neighbours and family close to each other. That proposal had been rejected by the government in favour of the British method of land division. As my plane flew over my family’s ancestral lands — Pembina, Red River, Batoche —  it occurred to me that even before the Métis had asked for and been denied the right to divide their land the way they saw fit, the vast prairies had been home to my earlier ancestors. The Anishinabe, Cree and Tsuu T’ina women my European ancestors married had never been given an opportunity to determine how their territory would be divided. They had been forced to give up virtually every part of their ancestral lands, and been relegated by the Canadian government to pitifully small reserves that had the poorest quality of soil for farming and minimal access to fish and game resources.

From my vantage point in the plane, I suddenly felt a profound historic connection to my French Métis and Aboriginal ancestors. I imagined how extraordinary it would be if someone could bring the stories of their struggles and victories to life in the twenty-first century. The idea for a feature film called Crossing Gabriel was born, and I began to write down ideas for a story about Gabriel Dumont’s role in the North West Rebellion. I made a decision on that flight to write and produce a film about the Métis version of Canadian history. Not the history we learned in school, where John A. McDonald’s was the hero and Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont the villains in the birth of Canada.

In the 128 years since my cousins and uncles died in the North West Rebellion, the cultural dysfunction in our country has scarcely shifted. The Métis are still without land and acknowledgment for their influential role in the establishment of Canada; First Nations are still waiting for cultural and economic restitution for their land and resources and for suffering 150 years of human rights violations disguised as the Indian Act. And while Canada’s Francophone citizens have succeeded in maintaining their own cultural sovereignty, they wait patiently generation after generation for recognition and respect from the rest of Canada.

By telling the story of the North West Rebellion in the form of a feature film, Canadians will discover that our country’s historical provocateurs – the French, First Nations and Métis – are in fact the true heroes of our reluctant nation.

Books Film

The Challenges of Adapting the Book “1491” into a TV Series

1491: A New History of the Americas, is a docu-drama series based on Charles C. Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

I’ve been working on adapting the book into an eight part series for more than a year. Tomorrow I’m delivering the 2nd draft of the script to APTN, the broadcaster that commissioned it.

It is without question the most demanding and challenging writing project I’ve ever worked on. Getting your head around 8 major themes that cover 40,000 years of history is hard enough. Making sure that the writing is respectful of the people whose history will be revealed, was my greatest concern.

As an Indigenous-driven production, it is important that the research, development and production respect and honour the intellectual and cultural property of the Indigenous nations whose stories are being told. The values that this project are committed to include:

  • Including Indigenous scholars, writers, directors, technicians and producers throughout the series.
  • Respecting the Nations whose stories will be interpreted in the series by following proper protocol in seeking and receiving permission to film in their territory.
  • Representing theories and case histories put forth by Mann in his book as they relate to Canada’s Indigenous people. While the series will be international in scope, it must include the stories of First Nations and Inuit societies in Canada prior to contact.

For those of you who are familiar with the book, “1491” presents an extraordinary thesis on Indigenous societies prior to contact. In his book, Charles C. Mann asks the question: “When does the history of the Americas begin?” For centuries, academics and historians have asserted that the beginning of “relevant” human history in the Americas began in the year 1492, with the arrival of a fleet of ships, captained by Christopher Columbus, on an island in the Caribbean. With primarily an oral history, a vast geographic domain, and profound diversity of language, culture and lifestyle, it isn’t surprising that western scholars offer Indigenous people only a brief mention in the timeline of human history in the Americas.

The rise of Indigenous academia in the past twenty-five years combined with the pursuit by some archaeologists to uncover physical evidence of significantly earlier migration (15,000 – 40,000 years) of Indigenous people than was previously accepted (10,000 – 15,000 years), has led to a ground-breaking shift in the way we perceive Indigenous civilization prior to European contact. Mann’s book demonstrates and substantiates that the Americas were populated by many highly sophisticated nations of people who developed advanced systems of agriculture, commerce, mathematics, astronomy, politics, language, art and spiritual beliefs.

He also reveals new theories on the ways that humans arrived and migrated throughout the Americas, and that their population in 1491 may well have numbered over 100 million inhabitants. Within decades of the arrival of Europeans, the culturally rich societies with their advanced technology and science, began to change dramatically as the result of introduced epidemics and campaigns of foreign-sponsored genocide.

As a writer, I knew that this would be a challenging project and it required extensive research beyond the pages of the book itself. Thankfully, I had an exceptional researcher, Cindy Carleton, working with me again.  As a former museum professional (I spent five years as the Aboriginal Liaison at the Royal BC Museum), I was interested in discovering how Mann wove indigenous oral history, historical records and archeological evidence to create a compelling picture of pre-contact Americas. As an Aboriginal television producer, I am looking forward to forging meaningful relationships with the many nations whose ancestors will be depicted in this ground-breaking series.

Barabara Hager


Where are all the Aboriginal movies?

In his award-winning documentary Reel Injun, Neil Diamond takes a humorous and insightful look at Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Aboriginal people. The B&W film clips of non-native actors with brown make-up playing Indians in fictional stories created by writers and directors who have probably never known Aboriginal people are reminders that all is not right in movie-land. Even with the recent Hollywood trend towards films with multi-dimensional, sympathetic Aboriginal characters (Dances With Wolves, Flags of our Fathers) it is still evident that American filmmakers believe they are doing Aboriginal people a favour by giving us bigger talking roles. The mythical Indian is still alive and well in Hollywood (see the “Twilight” films for proof).

By the end of the 20th century it was evident that if someone was going to change the way the mainstream film industry portrayed Aboriginal people on screen, it would take a real Indian to do it. The breakthrough came with Smoke Signalswritten by Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie and directed by Cheyanne/Arapaho Chris Eyre. Since that time, there have been only a handful of theatrical releases written or directed by Aboriginals — Whalerider (based on a book by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera), Boy (written and directed by Maori Taika Waititi and New Zealand’s biggest grossing film in history) and Atanarjuat (written and directed by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk).  Atanarjuat was the highest grossing non-French film in Canada in 2002 and won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s time for broadcasters and distributors to get behind more Aboriginal written and directed feature films in Canada. It’s clear from films like Whale Rider and Atanarjuat that there is an enthusiastic international audience for indigenous stories. We clearly need some champions within the industry to get our films financed, made and into the mainstream film market.