Aboriginal stories go beyond political drama in The Experimental Eskimos and Six Miles Deep

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      Filmmaker Barry Greenwald initially thought he was going to create a documentary about a government-directed social-engineering experiment involving three Inuit boys in the early 1960s. By the time he finished The Experimental Eskimos he realized that he had exposed a hidden chapter of Canadian history involving three Inuit political giants.

      “I discovered more and more as we were making the film about the scale and size of this history,” Greenwald told the Georgia Straight by phone from Toronto.

      The Experimental Eskimos tells the story of three Inuit men—Peter Ittinuar, Zebedee Nungak, and Eric Tagoona—who were separated from their families as 12-year-olds and sent to Ottawa for a “white” education, after scoring well on IQ tests. Greenwald, a veteran documentary director, found early-1960s home-movie footage taken in northern Quebec and Rankin Inlet, conveying what life was like at the time for Inuit children in remote communities. This is edited alongside quotations from government files of the era, which explicitly acknowledge that such a directed educational program could disrupt northern Native family ties and rapidly destroy Inuit culture.

      Film reveals social engineering

      “The three boys in the film had been documented in government memos, and there were reports of them participating in a social-engineering experiment, which they did not learn of until 1998,” Greenwald said. They are now suing the federal government.

      The film shows the three men together in present-day Rankin Inlet, in their late 50s, reminiscing about those early days. They share candid tales of what it was like growing up as Inuit teenagers next door to each other in Ottawa, where their culture was often scorned, in some instances by foster parents.

      The story takes a turn when they become young adults and begin to use their education to advance the interests of their people. Nungak helps negotiate the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement—an important land-claim settlement—and later heads an Inuit-owned economic and political organization. In 1979, Ittinuar becomes the first Inuit MP. Greenwald shows him delivering his maiden speech in Parliament, which called for the creation of Nunavut. And in one of the most dramatic sequences, Tagoona appears in front of a parliamentary committee meeting, playing a key role in ensuring aboriginal rights are affirmed in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

      “Here’s the irony: that experiment had these phenomenally unexpected results,” Greenwald said. “It ended up biting the government in the butt. And the very bureaucrats who planned this cockamamie thing never would have predicted that these men would become people who would shape and define Canada.”

      Even with all the political drama, The Experimental Eskimos remains a story about three men coming to terms with their painful pasts. This contrasts with another film on indigenous rights, Six Miles Deep, which turns its lens on a group of powerful, articulate aboriginal women who directed a highway blockade near Caledonia, Ontario, in 2006. Here, the politics are explicit and central to the story. Both movies are included in the DOXA Documentary Film Festival’s Justice Forum, a series of nine documentaries focusing on Canadian and international struggles for human rights.

      Six Miles Deep director Sara Roque, who lives in Toronto, told the Straight by phone that she wanted to highlight the strength of First Nations matriarchs. Roque, who is Métis, said the story of the missing aboriginal women in B.C. was a huge motivating factor for her. “I get choked up thinking about it,” she said.

      Her film begins with the traditional creation story of the Haudenosaunee Nation, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The main figure in the story is Skywoman, who is said to have given birth to a matriarchal culture. This gives viewers of the film a hint of what is to come. The blockade, which generated national headlines, was initiated after two Six Nations women, Janie Jamieson and Dawn Smith, asked clan mothers to support a protest against a proposed housing development on their traditional territory. Jamieson, a young mother, is a compelling figure in Six Miles Deep, often acting as the spokesperson during the lengthy standoff.

      Roque expressed great admiration for Jamieson’s strength and dedication. “She gave up everything over this period, and I don’t think she had absolutely any clue as to what was going to happen,” Roque said.

      She acknowledged that some have described her film as “biased”, but emphasized that its whole point is to show a side of the story that hasn’t been presented in the mainstream media. (Roque had the only independent camera inside the blockade.) The clan mothers are seen rallying the community and deciding on strategies to confront the attempt to occupy their territory. The picture sharply contrasts with traditional images of the blockade, which focused on male Native warriors in bandanas.

      “It becomes such a sexy image for the news media,” Roque commented. “It’s perfect because it fits into the whole idea of the stereotype of the male savage warrior—in my mind as a caricature.”

      Barry Greenwald will attend a DOXA festival screening of The Experimental Eskimos at the Vancity Theatre on Sunday (May 9) at 6:30 p.m.; Sara Roque will attend a DOXA festival screening of Six Miles Deep at Pacific Cinémathí¨que on Tuesday (May 11) at 1 p.m.