Inuk filmmaker’s experience with NFB prompts human rights complaint

Lindsay Richardson
In a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, an Inuk filmmaker details how he often felt stressed, isolated, and suffered “major psychological hardship” while working under contract with the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada.

Stephen Puskas, originally from Yellowknife, says he often felt “tokenized” during his nine-month contract after beginning work in October 2017 as an “associate producer intern” on at least two NFB documentary projects.

Despite not receiving an explicit rundown of the position’s responsibilities, Puskas says he approached the work with enthusiasm, intending to broaden his professional knowledge.

“It’s one of the institutions in the world that produces so many films about Inuit,” Puskas explained. “I was really looking forward to working on a project about Inuit films and stories, and to be able to build my capacity as an associate producer.”

Puskas alleges he was not given adequate training or an introduction from the start of the contract, recalling one incident where he was told by a supervisor to “knock on doors” if he wanted to be introduced to his peers.

Like a personal assistant

Despite a promise to assist veteran Indigenous documentary-maker Alanis Obomsawin on an upcoming short film to be shot in Nunatsiavut, Puskas said in his complaint he often felt like a personal assistant, rather than a producer.

“Basically, I was checking her email,” he said, in addition to other clerical tasks such as scheduling meetings and writing grant proposals.

While attending a meeting with government officials in Nain, Labrador in early 2018, Puskas says he and two other Inuit filmmakers – also part of the NFB delegation – were not invited to speak.

“There wasn’t, at that time, anyone from the communities being involved in the decision-making process,” he said.

“This is why we’re hoping the case will be a good test case with regard to systemic racism in employment, especially in these cultural industries,” explained Fo Niemi, executive director of the Montreal-based Centre for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR), which handled the complaint in August 2019.

According to Niemi, the NFB is “bound by employment equity obligations” under federal government guidelines. In 2017, it released a three-year Indigenous action plan to address the Truth and  Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, but Niemi wants to see a task force created to ensure the plan is enforced.

“A lot of people, when they talk about systemic discrimination or racism, they still look for intent,” he explained. “One has to look at discrimination, look at racism, more in terms of their effect on – in this case – racialized individuals or Indigenous individuals.”

For example, Puskas was asked to give cultural consulting on a First Nations – not Inuit – project, and assigned the “unwanted, residual” work of titling DVD chapters, according to a summary of the complaint.

Expressing dissatisfaction with his training, Puskas reported that supervisors laughed at his “wish to be confident in his abilities as an associate producer” telling him it was “not possible.” A promise to keep meeting on a weekly basis was never fulfilled, he added.

For lunch meetings

He says a non-Indigenous, associate producer sharing the same office space was often invited for lunch meetings with their supervisor, but  when Puskas tried to arrange meetings he says he was told their supervisor was unavailable.

“I noticed that one time she brought a bunch of textbooks related to film production, and being a producer in film, and I thought that maybe she got that from her school or the library,” Puskas explained. “But I asked her where she got it from, and she said she actually got it from her supervisor – who was also my supervisor.

“But I never got books like those,” he added.

The NFB acknowledged the complaint, saying in a statement to APTN News it “takes these allegations very seriously and is committed to a non-discriminatory working environment” but “the complaint process before the Commission is ongoing.”

CRARR is also asking the NFB to consider a number of changes, including the establishment of a formal internship structure and success program for Indigenous employees, as well as cultural awareness workshops for everyone on film projects.

Niemi says the case will enter mediation at the end of the month.

“We seldom see Indigenous individuals coming forward with complaints of systemic discrimination in employment in the film and cultural industries,” he said.

“The case can hopefully raise a level of awareness and encourage others to come forward.”

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