Top Canadian Director Responds to Controversy Over Indigenous Ancestry Claims

Michelle Latimer
George Pimentel/Getty Images

"I now realize that I made a mistake in naming Kitigan Zibi as my family’s community," says Michelle Latimer, whose documentary 'Inconvenient Indian' is headed to Sundance after bowing in Toronto.

Top Canadian film director Michelle Latimer has apologized after coming under scrutiny for claiming Indigenous family roots in a Quebec Algonquin community when promoting her documentary Inconvenient Indian ahead of its recent world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

The feature, an adaptation of Thomas King's book Inconvenient Indian, in which the American-born Canadian writer meditates on what it means to be "Indian" in North America, will next have a U.S. bow at the Sundance Film Festival next month.

Latimer, who describes herself as a Metis/Algonquin filmmaker, in a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter said she had responsibility as an "artist of mixed Indigenous and settler ancestry" to be precise in describing her personal history and ancestral ties.

"I now realize that I made a mistake in naming Kitigan Zibi as my family’s community before doing the work to formally verify this linkage," Latimer added. That admission followed an investigative story on the CBC website that questioned Latimer's claim in an Aug. 2020 press release from the National Film Board of Canada about Inconvenient Indian that she had an"Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki), Quebec."

Latimer, who declined an interview with THR, in her statement apologized to the Quebec Alqonquin community for claiming family ties without first confirming that ancestry with local elders. "I do realize that I made a mistake in naming the community before doing the necessary work to reach out to community members to verify these connections," she wrote.

Latimer also directed the first season of Trickster, a TV drama for the CBC in Canada that is based on Eden Robinson’s novel and follows an Indigenous teen struggling to support his dysfunctional family as myth, magic, and monsters seep into his life.

The controversy around Latimer's indigenous ancestry sparked criticism from the Canadian film industry, where generous subsidies are increasingly on offer to First Nations filmmakers amid an industry reckoning. Kawennahere Devery Jacobs, a Quebec-raised actress who starred in American Gods, Cardinal and The Order, on her Twitter account criticized Latimer for misrepresenting her family's Indigenous ancestry as indicating that she had an Indigenous identity.

"While her intent may not have been malicious, Michelle Latimer actively misled the Canadian industry into believing she was indigenous. She waited until she was backed into a corner to be forthcoming about her background, that she has been falsely claiming Metis and Algonquin for twenty years," Jacobs wrote.

The controversy may also put in doubt production on a second season of Trickster, which is now in development at the CBC. "Trickster is an important show for CBC and the Indigenous communities. We hope that Michelle Latimer and all the partners on the show will find their way through this to complete season two," a CBC spokesperson told THR on Friday.

Danis Goulet, another Canadian Indigenous director who has finished production on her debut feature, Night Raiders, a Canada-New Zealand co-production executive produced by Oscar-winner Taika Waititi, on Friday announced that she had resigned as a consulting producer of the Trickster drama.

"Throughout my career, I have worked to support productions with Indigenous creatives in leadership roles. My involvement in Trickster was with the understanding that I was working on a show that was co-led by Indigenous creatives," Goulet, who declined an interview with THR, said on her Twitter account.

"However, now that there is uncertainty about this, I feel a responsibility to uphold the values that I am dedicated to. Therefore, I resigned from Trickster last week. I continue to be in touch with many from our screen community about the best way forward," Goulet added.

Trickster co-creator and executive producer Tony Elliott also resigned from the TV series last week. "As a settler, it’s not my place to comment on concerns raised by the Indigenous film and television community. This is an important time for all non-Indigenous people to listen. My heart goes out to the Indigenous community," Elliot said on his Twitter account.

A copy of Michelle Latimer's statement follows:

Recently, questions have been raised about my ancestry. I understand these concerns given the long history of colonialism and violence in Indigenous Nations. Identifying and honoring the connection to our ancestries and the specific communities from which we come is complicated, but I am committed to being accountable to my community and moving forward in a good way. As an artist of mixed Indigenous and settler ancestry, I know it is my responsibility to be clear and direct about my personal history and ancestral ties.

This is a responsibility I have not only to myself, but also to my family, community, Indigenous filmmaking peers, and to all Indigenous people fighting for their sovereignty. I now realize that I made a mistake in naming Kitigan Zibi as my family’s community before doing the work to formally verify this linkage. I understand that there is an important difference between having this ancestry verified by the community of Kitigan Zibi and having it named and validated by members of my own family. I apologize and hold myself accountable for the impact this has had on the community of Kitigan Zibi. I know that when questions like these are raised, it hurts our entire community and undermines the years of hard work that so many have contributed towards raising Indigenous voices.

I take responsibility for the strain this conversation is having on the people who have supported me, and I apologize as well for any negative impact on my peers in the Indigenous filmmaking community. In order to address this mistake, I have reached out to Elders and community historians in Kitigan Zibi, and the surrounding areas, to receive guidance and obtain verification. Community members have been sharing the oral history of the area with me and have highlighted the impact of colonialization on how people identify and claim their family lineage in this area. I have also hired a professional genealogist so that my family and I can understand our family history with greater clarity. I feel very fortunate that members of the community are willing to help me on this journey. I am also listening to the advice of an Indigenous community of peers and taking action by acknowledging that I have work to do, and I will be taking time to do this important and necessary work.

I am grateful to the community members, Elders and peers who have offered their support and guidance during this time. These lessons, while difficult, offer an opportunity for reflection, and speak to the accountability that is necessary for advancing Indigenous sovereignty and liberation. I remain committed to lifting up the voices of Indigenous peoples, while also honouring and upholding the values of the multiple communities with whom I have relations and responsibilities. Like so many people, my journey to reclaim my history is ongoing. Through the help of a professional genealogist, my family has recently undertaken the work to collect written documentation of our history.

At this point, on paper, I can formally trace through source documentation, one line of our Indigenous ancestry dating back to the 1700’s. I have met with leadership from the community this ancestry directly ties to, and they have verified my family connections and confirmed that this is an accepted ancestral line. I will continue to undertake the research and documentation necessary to ensure that I am honoring their protocols and values around self-governance. My family and I are also working on confirming other Indigenous ancestors, some of whom might have been misidentified.

Our family history is mixed, and we don’t have all of the information, but I do know that our family resided in the Maniwaki/Kitigan Zibi area. Our family cabin is known by some in the community, and photos of our family members are included on the Kitigan Zibi website. Earlier this year, when we saw several of our family’s surnames on the Kitigan Zibi census it reinforced what we had heard. However, I do realize that I made a mistake in naming the community before doing the necessary work to reach out to community members to verify these connections. My grandfather was a hunting and fishing guide along Baskatong Lake. His family had a cabin there, and he resided there and around the Kitigan Zibi/Maniwaki area before he enlisted in World War II.

He later migrated to Northern Ontario to find work in the gold mines and to raise his family. My grandfather talked about our family being Indigenous (sometimes he would say Metis) and we always thought he was from Kitigan Zibi, or one of the neighbouring communities. When he spoke about these communities he gave the impression that they were all connected, and that it was all the same land. My grandfather loved these lands and knew them like the back of his hand. Up until his death, he lamented not being able to return there. When I first identified as Indigenous as a teenager in the 1990s, I hoped that embracing my family’s heritage was a step towards reclaiming who we are while also moving out from under the strict Catholic upbringing in which my mother was raised. As I grew older, I began to work as an artist to create projects that supported Indigenous causes. The fight to uphold Indigenous rights and self-determination has been the focus of my work for the past twenty years and I remain committed to this cause.