Strong Spirits Soar in New York

In 2021 CFSC’s Reconciliation Fund provided grant funds to long-time CFSC partner Katsi’tsakwas Ellen Gabriel for her studies in documentary filmmaking at the New York Film Academy (NYFA). Ellen is an artist and land defender from the Kanien’kehá:ka community of Kanehsatà:ke.  We are thrilled to support this critical decolonizing work. In her application to CFSC, Ellen described the Conservatory Master’s thesis class:

This has thoroughly enriched my life and I am gaining new skills in this medium based in good storytelling abilities through experts in their fields. This will help my advocacy work through the medium of documentary.

As part of her studies, Ellen directed Strong Spirits, a short documentary dealing with Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and the ongoing legacy of the genocidal programs. This film was then selected by the New York Film Academy to be run in DOCS NYC, the largest documentary film festival in the United States.

Here’s how the fesitval described Strong Spirits:

Indigenous peoples’ identity, language, culture, and value systems have been persistently under attack due to ongoing systemic racism embedded in Canada’s colonial laws, which ruptured the family unit. This story tells of the strength and resiliency of Indigenous peoples to retain their identity.

As Strong Spirits was the only selection by a Canadian film maker, Ellen was also invited to participate in Only In New York—a round table opportunity for filmmakers who had works-in-progress to take meetings with industry figures with roles in distribution, financing, grant-making, co-production, and more.

“This will help my advocacy work.”


Ellen describes her film.

Indigenous peoples in Canada have faced obstacles to the existence and respect for their languages, cultures, and family units.  As has been recently confirmed by Indian Residential School survivors, over 6,000 Indigenous children lost their lives in these state run schools.  Romeo Saganash of the Eeyou (Cree) nation of James Bay tells his story of survival and the pain in losing an older brother at an Indian Residential School.

This is a story about surviving genocide, as told by Romeo Saganash, and the impacts of historical trauma upon Indigenous families and communities as explained by Professor Wanda Gabriel.

As an Indigenous activist and advocate for the past three decades, I am honoured and pleased to be part of the NYFA showcase for the world to discover the stories, strength/resilience, and spirit of Indigenous peoples.

Systemic racism and the genocide that was the norm must be revealed if there are to be any chances of reconciliation; to learn from the past and move forward into a more enlightened future.

This is about the thousands of Indigenous voices that have been silenced by state policies and education systems. However, as more bodies of Indigenous children in unmarked graves are being found in former Indian Residential Schools, we are witnessing that their spirits are speaking more loudly than any advocate and survivor ever have.

It is the time to learn, to listen, and to heal, and I am very proud that NYFA has included me in their selection of student films to be shown at DOC NYC.

When Romeo Saganash was a Member of Parliament, CFSC supported his work around developing federal legislation to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. CFSC has also partnered many times on various human rights’ projects with Ellen Gabriel, in her community. Providing a grant to Ellen in her growth as a filmmaker extends our support of Indigenous partners who are advocating for decolonization and reconciliation.

The strength of residential school survivors, including Romeo, is a breathtaking reminder of the work to be done to be sure all people in this country understand the history and the ongoing legacy of colonial policies. The film also features Professor Wanda Gabriel of McGill University, an expert on trauma, and surviving trauma. Last year CFSC partnered with Ellen in a short video with Professor Gabriel, which can be seen at

Finally, Ellen’s reflections on the experience:

NYFA’s documentary program lifted my spirits to explore a new medium of creativity. I explored new ways of telling Indigenous stories in a supportive and inspiring atmosphere.

The majority of classes were on Zoom, but I was able to attend one in-person class thanks to the support of CFSC, and I am eternally grateful for this wonderful opportunity and kind gift. CFSC has been an outstanding and supportive ally throughout my work in activism. Niawenkó:wa—a big thank you CFSC.

CFSC’s Reconciliation Fund was established in 2017 in response to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and an individual Friend’s leading to contribute to reconciliation by donating a portion of his annual income to reconciliation initiatives. The purpose of the Fund is to support the grassroots, community-based efforts of Indigenous people in Canada who are working on cultural and language revitalization and other projects. We are proud and honoured to support such vital reparations work.

Applications to the Reconciliation Fund are found here. We only fund projects that are the work of Indigenous people; our grant maximum is $2,500.

Jennifer Preston is a member of Hamilton Meeting. She serves as CFSC’s General Secretary and coordinates the Indigenous Rights program.