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Wilfred Buck demonstrates the power of ceremony in transforming Indigenous lives

Wilfred Buck
harismatic Indigenous astronomer Wilfred Buck gets back to nature in a new film directed by Lisa Jackson. Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada and Door Number 3 Productions Inc.

In the film Wilfred Buck, the central character offers a comment that explains his extraordinary life.

“Everything comes through ceremony,” Ininiw (Cree) astronomer Wilfred Buck declares.

Indeed, it has. Buck has built and occupied sweat lodges. He has participated in sun dances and powwows. And he has benefited from pipe ceremonies and vision quests.

Ceremony profoundly shapes Buck, who was born 70 years ago in The Pas in northern Manitoba. Moreover, ceremony enabled him to escape addiction and crime as a young man to become a role model and highly sought educator. At one point in this inspirational film, Buck shares insights into traditional Indigenous knowledge in a lecture to Harvard academics.

Directed by Anishinaabe (Aamjiwnaang) filmmaker Lisa Jackson, Wilfred Buck weaves together re-enactments of his troubled early life with archival images of Indigenous displacement. She accompanies this with narration from the astronomer’s book, I Have Lived Four Lives, reinforcing her film’s deep authenticity. And it has a fantastic soundtrack, reaching back into the 1970s with songs like “Raise a Little Hell” and “The Boys in the Bright White Sports Car” to reflect the tenor of the times.

Wilfred Buck also documents Buck’s modern-day visits to First Nations with his mobile planetarium. There, he delivers often-humorous lessons on stargazing laced with ecological messages. Ultimately, this is  a story about reverence for the land, sea, and sky—and the triumph of the human spirit—all captured with rich imagery.

Wilfred Buck
Raymond Chartrand portrays a young Wilfred Buck, who loved putting together model airplanes. Courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada and Door Number 3 Productions Inc.

Wilfred Buck punctures settler denial

Co-produced by Door Number 3 Productions and the National Film Board of Canada, Wilfred Buck was nominated for Best Canadian Documentary at Hot Docs in Toronto. More recently, Jackson won a special jury mention for the Colin Low Award for Best Canadian Director at the DOXA Documentary Festival in Vancouver.

Some of the most memorable moments come in Buck’s vehicle as he drives along the highway sharing his life story. His grief over what happened to family members is palpable, but this is leavened at other times by his humour and wisdom.

Last year, Vancouver media artist and Dutch settler Irwin Oostindie told Pancouver that genocide requires settler denial. But he added that once a person breaks this bubble of settler denial in their life, they understand and empathize with the victims of genocide.

Lisa Jackson
Wilfred Buck director Lisa Jackson. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Through her extraordinary storytelling, Jackson punctures the bubble of settler denial. She does this with the help of a supporting cast that includes Blackfoot Elder and academic Leroy Little Bear and Cree artist Kent Monkman, who’ve each been leaders in elevating consciousness about the true history of Canada.

To put it bluntly, Wilfred Buck is a survivor of genocide. While this isn’t stated directly, it’s implicit throughout Jackson’s remarkable film.

The VIFF Centre will screen Wilfred Buck six times in Vancouver between May 17 and May 25. It will also be shown in Saskatoon and Regina. In addition, Wilfred Buck will be screened on May 23 at the Yorkton Film Festival. Plus, there will be seven showings from May 24 to June 9 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.

Learn more about the communities that make up Canada on the Toronto Spark website. Follow the Toronto Spark on X @TOSparkOfficial.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society created Toronto Spark to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

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Arts for Canadians Tomorrow Society is grateful to be held on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples, that is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We acknowledge our privilege to be gathered on this land, and commit to work with and be respectful to the Indigenous peoples whose arts and stories inspire us to bring communities together.