Nations at War is about the conflicts Indigenous groups have had between each other and outside forces throughout North American history, but the goal of the program—returning for Season 2 on APTN this Saturday—isn’t to celebrate the violence. Rather, it’s to show how damaging it is.
“I want people to realize that war is the least effective and worst option to resolve any issue,” says Tim Johnson. “It is almost always instigated by someone who is looking for an easy path to success or is really desperate.” Created by Johnson, the first season of Nations at War outlined how a continent of nations became dominated by three. The sophomore go-round of 13 instalments examines the impact of migration and the arrival of newcomers on those nations.
Nations at War is the kind of program that should be part of Canadian school curriculum. I learned more about how First Nations groups were pushed out of their land by Europeans in one 22-minute episode than I did a whole course of Canadian history in high school. Narrated by David Lyle—and featuring experts like Simon Fraser Professor of Archaeology, Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn—reenactments, stock footage, breathtaking CGI and stunning music, Nations at War gallops at a breakneck, exhilarating pace. I headed to Google several times during a screener of Episode 11, “Broken Promises,” for more information.
“I’ve always been interested in history,” says producer and Métis filmmaker Jason Friesen (Health Nutz). “Tim is very enthusiastic and a knowledgeable person about history. It got the wheels turning for me, creatively, and we all need to know more about our history.”
Johnson did an incredible amount of reading in preparation for Nations at War. Growing up in Halifax, his junior high history classes recalled the Mi’kmaq peoples of the Maritimes. For him, Canadian history meant Indigenous Peoples, followed by the invasion of the English and the French. When it came to creating Nations at War, it was all about telling the human story, and the more obscure or interesting the better.
“Jason and I sat down with my bullet-point list and said, ‘OK, why is this story good?'” recalls Johnson. “Jason is Métis, so one of the things he said was, ‘I want to see Métis stories.'”
As Nations at War tells, for the majority of human history, North America’s population was entirely Indigenous. Then, in the early 1600s, Europeans began to establish colonies along the Atlantic coast. These settlements became gateways through which millions of people would eventually flow west, creating demand for new land.
Europeans weren’t the only people creating chaos as they settled across North America. The Ojibwe and Lakota were already on the move, and their migration created a domino effect which provoked conflict and cultural change, as peoples who already called the west home fought to defend their territory.
“I want people to tune in and have those moments of, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that,’ Googling it and opening things up to conversation,” Friesen says. “People get certain ideas about what they’ve read or been told in the past, and the way we present it gives many different perspectives.”
Nations at War airs Saturdays at 7 p.m. Eastern on APTN.
Producer, Writer, Director Jason Friesen of Chasing Pictures Inc., and Creator/Writer Tim Johnson will premiere the second season of Nations at War, a documentary TV series on September 19 on APTN. Friesen (Health Nutz) is a BC Metis filmmaker; and Johnson is a writer and story editor with a BA in History from Nova Scotia.
For centuries, the mass migration of peoples across North America has reshaped the face of the continent. From the 17th century migrations of the Ojibwe, to the 19th-century flood of American settlers. Standing in their way were nations who battled to defend their ancient homes.
For the majority of human history, North America’s population was entirely Indigenous in its character. Then in the early 1600s Europeans began to establish colonies along the Atlantic coast. These settlements became gateways through which millions of people would eventually flow west, creating incessant demand for new land.
However, these foreigners were not the only migrants creating chaos as they claimed new homes across North America. Nations like the Ojibwe and Lakota were already on the move. Their migration created a domino effect which provoked conflict and cultural change, as peoples who already called the west home fought to defend their territory.
From the Atlantic to the Pacific, the wars created by mass migration would transform North America into the continent we know today. Nations at War is hosted by David H. Lyle (Arrow, Arctic Air); and features Simon Fraser Professor of Archeology, Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn.
Nations at War is produced by Chasing Pictures Inc. with the participation of the Canada Media Fund, and in association with APTN.
The premiere episode of Nations at War—on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on APTN—took us back to 1787 in the Pacific Northwest, a region of North America that was dominated by the Haida, the greatest naval power North America had ever seen.
Host David Lyle reminded viewers that at this time European and American ships were cross-crossing the world in search for goods to amass wealth. The Haida flourished and conquered the harsh Pacific seas with their war canoe designs. Their intimidating naval strength meant the Haida were able to grasp great wealth.
The episode included interviews with student and artist Erika Stocker, who shared knowledge concerning the connections the Haida have with both with the oceans and the spiritual beings of the region; and Jim Hart, artist and Hereditary Chief, who discussed the attributes of the Haida dugout war canoe, some of which carried 50-60 paddlers.
Topics the episode covered included: Pot-latch Ceremony, the natural cultural barrier that the Hecate Strait provided, the war canoe design, various war implements such as canoe breakers, the armour that was unique to the Haida people and the war club. Also discussed was the use of slaves by the Haida.
Nations at War is a unique approach to Canadian history and to understand this macro approach, I am including the following statement about the Haida, made by series creator and writer Tim Johnson. (Read more of my interview with Tim and producer and co-writer Jason Friesen here.) The depth in which he spoke illustrates the breadth of knowledge this series has encapsulated in an extremely engaging format:
Coming face to face with Pacific Northwest art, it is this stunning centuries old practice and cultural tradition that has endured,” he said. “I remember going and seeing the statues in the Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, and how stunning those totems were. I knew very little about the Haida other than the fact where they lived and that they were an Indigenous people who had been on those islands for probably thousands of years if not longer and they were a very artistic and a very culturally gifted people.
It is interesting that in European history, the Vikings loomed large. They are this tidal wave of change and evolution in Europe. They revolutionized trade and trade routes, they completely changed maritime travel, they were a whisk that essentially mixed up all of these different political factions and re-forced them, especially in Britain, into the kingdoms which would go on to shape history for generations to come.
But when you compare the Haida to the Vikings, there are a lot of similarities. These were people who used warfare as a means to solve economical and logistical problems. Many societies, like the Mi`kmaq or the Metis, are utilitarian societies. They go and they hunt and fight and do work and defend their territory. So there is always a shortage of labour. If you are devoting all of your time to sustenance or survival, your outlook on life is pragmatic. Then your cultural traditions and your artistic traditions will be shaped by that outlook. There is a means to an end, it is mobile, it does not take up too much time or energy. That is why songs and dances actually, for a lot of people who lived a sustainable life, were more important than carving or building, because that was something that was personal that could be done around your life.
The Haida were an incredible adaptation where they took captives. They used slavery. Not only did they trade slaves as a resource to get more of what they lacked on their island, but they also had, I think at one point from the research that we found, was an estimated 24-26 per cent of the Haida population was probably non-Haida slaves. All of that manual labour, all of the domestic chores were taken care of which means that your young men and young women could devote themselves to art. Could devote themselves to culture. Could devote themselves to warfare. And what happens is kind of like what happened with the Egyptians; the emergence of monumental architecture.
So when I remember seeing those Haida totem poles as a child, I am not understanding the context. I was impressed by their size and power and beauty. When I understood how their society and their economy functioned, that raiding was not just warfare for warfare`s sake but it was warfare—like the Vikings—with a purpose, because of the need for resources, for the need for labour, for the need to gather the goods you can trade from one group of people to different group of people; it propelled their society into a cultural golden age. These carvings and these canoes with their decorated carvings on their hulls were not only incredibly useful pieces of technology, but they were emulated and envied. The nations on the coast would buy Haida canoes because they were awesome. They were incredible. They were well made, they were fast, they were durable and they were the perfect vessel for those waters.
When you see that art, those poles, which in many ways has become a brand for the west coast across the world, that is the product of a Haida cultural golden age that emerged from one of the most powerful and sophisticated civilizations in the history of the Americas. Now when I think back to when I saw those totem poles as a child, I realize now that I was seeing a statement of power from one of the most intellectual people in human history.
Once again, I extend my thanks to Tim Johnson for taking the time to share his passion for Canadian history.
If you missed the premiere episode, you can check it out here.
Nations at War airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on APTN.
APTN’s new documentary series Nations at War—airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET—takes a macro look at the influence First Nations people have had on global events in history. Creator and writer Tim Johnson and producer, director and co-writer Jason Friesen take a unique approach with many key events in Canadian history, often revealing details many of us have never heard before, and examine common themes throughout. By the end, they tie all of these events up into one large picture. I caught up with Jason Friesen and Tim Johnson to talk about Nations at War and what viewers can expect every week.
How did the two of you come up with the concept for Nations at War? Tim Johnson: There was a lot of debate on different elements because we had a limited budget. Part of what I wanted to do with the show’s concept was because I am a huge watcher of popular history shows, particularly British ones. I have always loved their approach and history programming is always done very differently than it is done here in North America. I wanted to emulate a lot of these British historical documentaries series that I found really exciting and very engaging and I think, very approachable to watch.
But when Jason and I started talking about making the show in the very early stages, I realized I am a writer and I can talk all about history that you want, and I like to develop a good story, but I am not a producer and I didn’t have the expertise to do it myself. I knew right away that I needed guidance. I needed someone with the skills, someone with the background, and I needed someone with organization. And I needed it to be the right person that could take the rough material I had come up with, and the concepts that I wanted to do, and the way I wanted the story—which is a very macro view of history—and take it to make a show that actually works. But it was British television that really inspired this.
Jason Friesen: Originally, it was a mutual friend of ours that pitched me Tim’s idea and I was connected with Tim and I went through the whole thing where my company acquired the show. I already have a long-standing relationship with APTN from other shows I have done with them, but basically, I played a lot of team sports growing up. I told Tim that a lot of what I do I learned from playing team sports. Everyone plays a different position on the team but in order to succeed or win, everyone has to come together with their different talents. Part of what I bring to the table is the broadcaster and financing, but I also bring a team of people like VFX and Peter Allen an award-winning composer, these are all really important ingredients that make shows really good.
When we pitched the concept to APTN we had to do a demo and so I enlisted a VFX friend Brian Moylan, and with his expertise, we sat down with what Tim had sent me and we added our ideas and creativity and fine-tuned all of the concepts and imagery. I had never done VFX before and we did over 1,100 VFX shots. There are a lot of movies that do not even have that many shots.
Tim: A lot of what we did didn’t exist, so there was a real synchronicity going on because each person we brought on had this technical knowledge to bring to this concept that was really a loose idea in my head. They brought it to reality. There are certain things that you can only do if you have an ungodly amount of money and people and time to throw at. The interesting part, the weakest aspects in my original concept was honestly where Jason, with his ideas, were a perfect fit. This show is a very map heavy show which was very clear in my mind but Jason brought in all of that personal and important detail stuff that was not clearly focused in my mind and it all fit perfectly with my macro idea. There was no question, it just all fit right away.
Why this show, right now? Jason: We get this question a lot with so many issues happening, but honestly, we have been working on this show from development until now for probably four years. I wanted to produce this show because I had a genuine interest in learning more about history, and I like to do things that challenge me and where I learn. I learned a lot about not only my own Metis history, but I learned a lot about other nations and just Canadian history in general. We are basically offering a slice of life from our historical past brought to life through elders and experts and VFX. There was never a ‘We have to do this now because it is timely,’ it was just a passion as a storyteller to do this. And APTN? They were very excited by this concept because it is an APTN show. It has all of the elements.
Tim: And I wanted to do a history documentary series. I was sitting in my apartment working on a Mother Mother music video at two o’clock in the morning, and I took a break and I just sat down and wrote out two or three episodes. And I thought, maybe I could do eight or something like that.
And like Jason said, ‘Well why now?’ Well, it is now because this is when production ended. When we started it was ‘Why don’t we do a cool history show?’ We just wanted to show everyone that Canadian history is global history and how First Nations were just as tied in to huge global events as the British Empire was. We are just showing the tides of history washing back and forth across the continent and frankly, that is all we ever wanted to do. We had an original concept and in show business having an original idea is like the Holy Grail. So if we don’t do it now, somebody else will.
We had a concept, and every topic we considered had to fit into our story. We are telling a story and decisions were made based upon how important each segment and its characters and individual story were to the big history story we were trying to tell. What kind of themes tie in with other themes and reach common ground in the bigger, wider narrative. There is stuff that we shouldn’t have been able to do with that budget that we did anyway. Especially the Haida Gwai episode, but we were smart about it, and we were committed to doing it in a way we could pull it off.
During your research, what surprised you? Jason: I am glad you asked that because the other day we were talking to a reporter who said ‘You know I watched a couple episodes, and I can honestly say that I learned some things I did not know about before.’ And I said ‘You don’t know how happy that makes me feel because I am all about learning.’ Especially when it comes to history, and when it comes to Native history. So to answer your question, that happened all the time. Even with our host David Lyle. We would send him his material. And then the next day, when Tim and I would be talking to him he would say, ‘HEY, I had no idea that the Haida were one of the strongest naval forces in North America.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t know at first either.’ That was the beauty of this project. When I think of this, I imagine people of all ages watching this on television in Canada and it makes me feel really good that people will be watching a program that has all of these visual anecdotes that help translate what Tim and I are trying to say. But it will also open up questions and understandings of things that people didn’t know about, and it will create conversations and educate people. There will also be an understanding that a lot of these Aboriginal heroes in a lot of these stories in history books, they are second players in their own stories. I am very excited for people to watch Nations at War and learn new things about not only their own culture but just history in general.
Nations at War airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on APTN.
Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 10 p.m. ET sees the series premiere of the history documentary Nations at War, produced by Jason Friesen, written and created by Tim Johnson and narrated by David H. Lyle on APTN. While taking in the fantastic visuals that VFX specialist Brian Moylan created with his team, viewers can expect to learn about such topics in Canadian history as the Haida Gwai, Louis Riel and Tecumseh.
As I watched, I noted that Nations at War followed a similar format as CBC’s controversial Canada: The Story of Us. In fact, this almost feels like a response to the very same. But that was just a coincidence in timing. If you recall, many viewers and even participants voiced their concerns about how little coverage the history of First Nations was dealt in Canada: The Story of Us. Here in Nations at War, those blanks were filled and Canadian history buffs will definitely rejoice at the materials covered. This is not the “same old same old” from our social studies texts. Nations at War takes a macro look at history and demonstrates how First Nations had just as much impact on huge global events as, say, the British Empire or the Spanish Empire did.
Series producer, co-writer Jason Friesen and creator, writer Tim Johnson set out to make a series that—when broken down—each episode tells one component of a larger story that reaches globally. Watched independently, viewers will learn about one full chapter of history and have a rounded understanding of that unique event. However, if you take the time to watch all 13 episodes, you will have a fuller experience. We as Canadians tend to downplay our importance in global history and Nations at War showcases the impact that people, who lived here on the land we now call Canada, had on the world stage.
As a teacher, I am always looking for material that can assist my colleagues who may not have the resources at hand when it comes to fulfilling the Aboriginal topics in their curriculum. I would recommend this series as a great resource. With the ability to stream once episodes have aired, teachers have the opportunity to pre-screen during the initial airing and then stream in the classroom. Topics included cover many different geographical regions in Canada so teachers can access the material relevant to the communities proximal to their area. The presentation is definitely engaging for students due to the heavy use of VFX in its creation.
If you are a history buff, be sure to check out Nations at War. If you are a teacher looking for new ways to introduce or even supplement your course materials, check this series out too.
Nations at War airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on APTN.