The Indigenous Screen Office is still taking shape, but director Jesse Wente’s goal is crystal clear: to change Canadian culture
A little over a year ago, in June 2017 then–Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly announced a compelling new initiative: an Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) to aid with the development, production and marketing of Indigenous screen content, founded (and funded) by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), the CBC, the Canada Media Fund (CMF), Telefilm Canada, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and the CMPA.
The announcement followed a multi-stakeholder process led by consultant Marcia Nickerson, which explored the barriers and difficulties faced by Indigenous storytellers. According to the report produced by Nickerson, these barriers run deep and wide—and they echo a report by Jeff Bear on the same topic, commissioned 13 years earlier.
“Bear raised issues of inadequate funding, inadequate access to distribution, inadequate professional development—the list goes on,” says Valerie Creighton, president and CEO of the CMF. “When I reread that report, I thought, ‘We should all be ashamed of ourselves.’ Nothing had changed.”
Nickerson’s cross-country consultations led to a number of recommendations, and ultimately, the creation ofan independent screen office, focused on supporting Indigenous creators and helping them bring their stories to screen. The ISO is still in its infancy: it currently has no office building. Director Jesse Wente is the only employee. In essence, he is the office. But, by all accounts, if anybody is going to make this baby walk, it’s Wente.
Wente, an Ojibwe from the Serpent River First Nation, has been a culture critic on CBC’s Metro Morning for over 20 years. He is a director of the Toronto Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts, and, for seven years, was director of film programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
“At TIFF Bell Lightbox, our audiences trusted what Jesse selected for them,” says Piers Handling, TIFF’s outgoing director and CEO. “He is smart, intelligent and analytical. I expect he will make astute decisions that will give a shape and a structure to the new office.”
Creighton agrees: “At this stage, Jesse’s role is akin to a diplomat, raising awareness, negotiating and collaborating. It’s development, a strategic role. The ISO does not yet have designated funds to administer, but that is the ultimate goal. He’s building the structure and building the elements that need to come into play to make the ISO work. I think he is the right person to do that.”
What does Wente hope the ISO will achieve? Ultimately, he wants to see increased narrative sovereignty (control over their own stories) for First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples, which he believes can begin to beat down the raging inequity in Canadian society. In fact, it’s an essential step.
“The big thing at the end for me—and for anyone who wants to achieve change—is culture,” says Wente. “The stories we tell influence what happens here. The inequities we see in our culture are intimately related to the stories we tell, who is allowed to tell stories, and what those stories are. If we don’t start making that change, it will be difficult to change the other inequities as well.”
According to Creighton, Wente’s phone and inbox have been flooded with thousands of requests from people in the Indigenous community “who want to get this right. People who have an idea and want to engage. And that’s the very point.”
For her part, Ojibwe producer Lisa Meeches of Winnipeg’s Eagle Vision (Taken, Burden of Truth, Ice Road Truckers) wants to see the ISO become “the hub, the centre, the Juilliard of Indigenous storytelling.” She also wants to see more Indigenous producers, “because in the end, producers have final say. And there’s only two or three of us producing at my level in the country. That’s not enough to make the change we need in terms of our storytelling.”
Indeed, increased representation—overrepresentation, even—is one of Wente’s primary goals. “For the entire history of institutions like Telefilm, the CMF, the NFB and the CBC, almost all Indigenous screen content has been created by non-Indigenous peoples,” he says. “Indigenous peoples were largely—no, completely—excluded from the building of those institutions. And now, if all these major funders decide, ‘Since Indigenous peoples represent 4.5% of the Canadian population, we need to fund them at 4.5% of our budget,’ what sort of change do you think will actually be achieved? It would be a struggle, I think, to make any kind of difference with only 4.5%.”
On the contrary, Wente believes that centuries of assimilation and invisibility and appropriation can only be addressed by fostering and supporting Indigenous creators for “a sustained and consistent length of time, longer than I will be alive”—so long that people will no longer remember a time when Indigenous people were not on screens, behind cameras, filling story rooms. He says, “I get most excited imagining a time, which I think is very near, where the idea that Indigenous people are underrepresented vanishes.”
He also points out that working toward change within Canada’s relatively small screen industry will mean sharing the system’s limited resources. For non-Indigenous producers, this may mean making room for others to tell a story—sharing some of the space, and even the financial resources, to which they may feel entitled. Wente argues, “The truth is, if we can’t share the resources of this land when it comes to storytelling, we are unlikely to be able to share them when it comes to everything else, and we are always going to live in an inequitable society. I don’t want that, and I assume many others don’t either.”
Wente has assembled an all-Indigenous advisory circle, from APTN CEO Jean La Rose to award-winning documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, to help him craft a long-term vision and structure for the ISO. But, without a doubt, what we can expect to see in the years ahead are stories, stories and more stories. That’s what everyone wants: the federal government, the funding bodies, Indigenous creators, industry members, the country at large. The excitement is palpable.
“I can just hardly wait,” Creighton enthuses. “It is the audiences in this country who are missing out on the magnitude of these stories, in both volume and content, that just have not had the access or opportunity to be made. I can hardly wait to see these stories in the context of what the power of media can do for a whole country and a community about changing people’s perceptions, stereotypes, minds. Controlling your own story―that’s real power.”
“I’m eager to see all the stories,” Wente concurs. “Given the opportunity, I know that our talents will soar. I think there will be remarkable things: stories we’ve never imagined, stories we never thought would come true, in ways we never thought would happen. It’s a long time coming, but I think that we are at the exact right moment to achieve enormous change.”