North of 60

Play episode
Hosted by

In the early 1990s, when Canadians watched Road to Avonlea, Street Legal, or The Red Green Show they saw mostly white characters, living in Eastern Canada.

That all changed Dec. 3, 1992, when a man moved from Vancouver to the Northwest Territories to escape the pain of his failed marriage and the death of his partner during an undercover drug investigation. Those were the   first three minutes of a groundbreaking TV show that gave us eyes into a northern community whose heart and soul, were the Indigenous residents of a fictional town.

For the next five years, it tackled issues such as alcoholism, mental health, depression, and crime and more importantly it brought to light and highlighted the trauma survivors of residential schools faced a decade before the Government of Canada officially apologized for them.

The show was North of 60, and over30 years ago it burst onto our screens well ahead of its time to become a fan favorite

I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx!

In the decades before North of 60 Indigenous representation on film and TV was rare and when it was… it was stereotypical and let’s be honest… racist…Often Indigenous people were part of a ‘cowboys and Indians’ story, with the cowboys being heroes and the Indigenous individual seen as villains.

That is until 1970 when Chief Dan George, a Canadian Indigenous actor, appeared in Little Big Man and earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Old Lodge Skins.

The film, contrary to others of the time, gave a sympathetic depiction of Indigenous people, while the American cavalry were the villains. This began a slow change in Indigenous depictions, and today, the film is seen as a pioneering revisionist western.

You might be familiar with this genre… years later the movies Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves would be considered part of it as well.

Then two years after Chief Dan George’s groundbreaking role, The Beachcombers debuted on CBC in year. Among the main cast was Indigenous actor Pat John, who played the part of Jesse Jim. Throughout the entire 18 season run of the show, Jesse Jim worked alongside Nick Adonidas looking for valuable logs that washed up on the British Columbia coast.

Jesse was not a sidekick, or an underling, but a partner in their business.

Beachcombers was also groundbreaking in its portrayal of Indigenous characters because it didn’t resort to stereotypes, instead it created full-fledged and complex characters.

In an interesting turn of events, Chief Dan George appeared on the show, and he was one of many others who were given an opportunity to act.

In 1982, Spirit Bay, the first true Indigenous television show debuted on CBC and TVOntario. Over the course of 13 half-hour episodes o from 1982 to 1987Graham Greene, Tom Jackson and Tantoo Cardinal, starred in the show set on an Ontario Ojibwe reservation, which followed the residents as they adapted to white society while trying to keep their traditions.

All three men would later appear on North of 60.

Meanwhile, outside of TV as the 1990s dawned, Indigenous issues began to move to the forefront in Canada.

The Oka Crisis of 1990 sparked debates over land claims, and that same year Indigenous Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper brought down the Meech Lake Accord due to its lack of Indigenous consultation regarding the Canadian Constitution.

These were major stories, and they were in the background to the debut of North of 60.

In fact, the third episode of the show centred on government efforts to build a highway to the isolated community despite the protests of the Indigenous residents, and the Oka Crisis was mentioned in that episode.

But before we get ahead of ourselves… let’s go back to the beginning….

North of 60 was conceived by Barbara Samuels and Wayne Grisby, two white writers best known up until then for their work on E.N.G, a hit Canadian show about a Toronto newsroom, which aired from 1989 to 1994.

At the time, Northern Exposure in the United States was incredibly popular. Set in Alaska, it was a hit on CBS and showed that audiences would turn in to a show set in a northern location. While that may have been part of the genesis of North of 60, the two shows were very different when it came to subject matter.

Grisby said they sat down to come up with a show and they wanted to focus on stories they hadn’t seen on screen before… for that they looked to Canada’s north. And they set it in a place where people would be isolated, in a town where three-quarters of the population was Indigenous.

In an interview in the early-2000s he said,

“It put the whites in the minority position and the Dene in the majority position. The Europeans come at it with sort of European smugness, and the Dene come at it with Dene insecurities.”

Alliance Entertainment agreed to make it and then Tom Cox and Doug MacLeod came onboard to find the perfect location to film the show.

The story was set in the fictional town of Lynx River, Northwest Territories, but there was no way the show could be filmed in the Canadian North.

According to Cox, there was simply no support system for film production there at the time.

After scouting several locations, reading a few of the scripts, and hiring a location manager, it was clear the location needed to be by a river or creek.

This led them to Bragg Creek, Alberta, located a half hour south of Calgary. The location would mimic what they envisioned for Lynx River, and Calgary was already equipped for filming, so it was a perfect fit.

With the location chosen, it came time to cast the show with some of best Indigenous actors the country had to offer…

Leading the cast was Tina Keeper, who portrayed RCMP officer Michelle Kenidi. A member of the Norway House Cree Nation, Keeper was the granddaughter of Joe Keeper, an Olympic long-distance runner who competed in the 1912 Olympic Games, finishing fourth in the 10,000 metres.

She was inspired to become an actor when she was involved with an Indigenous theatre company in Winnipeg. Prior to North of 60 she had several supporting roles in films including the National Film Board docudrama For Angela.

Keeper didn’t believe she could have a career as an actor, so she pursued a master’s degree with the hopes of becoming a history professor…that is until she got the call that she was cast in North of 60, her first television show.

John Oliver, a white man, was cast to play her RCMP partner, Eric Olsen, who left Vancouver for a quiet posting after his life began to fall apart. Prior to North of 60, Oliver acted in three episodes of 21 Jump Street, four episodes of MacGyver, and had a brief one-episode role in The Beachcombers.

In the show, Olsen served as the fish out of water. He was the eyes through which the audience got to know the community and its residents upon arriving in Lynx River in the first episode from the Canadian south.

While Keeper and Oliver were partners on screen, they became romantically involved off-screen. As you can imagine it didn’t end well and brought about a significant change to North of 60, which we’ll get to that in a bit.

Tracy Cook, an actress out of St. Catherine’s, Ontario, was brought in to play Nurse Sarah Birkett. She had various small roles in Canadian shows such as Forever Knight and Counterstrike.

Tom Jackson came to take on the part of Peter Kenidi, Michele’s brother and the band chief.  He was born on the One Arrow Reserve in Saskatchewan, he moved to Winnipeg when he was 14 and one year later, dropped out of high school and spent several years living on the street.

He eventually found his way to acting, with Spirit Bay serving as his first-ever acting role. He continued to act in small parts until North of 60.

At the time, he was also an accomplished singer, having reached #43 on the Canadian charts in 1989 with his single No Regrets.

Gaining the role of Peter Kenidi for Jackson actually came down to a lunch with Graham Green in Calgary.

Dakota House was brought in to play the troubled Trevor Victor Tenia, known simply as TeeVee, on the show.

The role was his first acting job, but he quickly adapted to television and earned praise for his portrayal of the troubled teen.

Gordon Tootoosis brought major name recognition to the show, and he portrayed Albert Golo, a bootlegger and former band chief.

Tootoosis is a descendent of Chief Poundmaker, one of the most important Cree chiefs in the19th century in Canada. Gordon’s father was John Tootoosis, an activist for Indigenous rights in Canada and someone I covered on an episode last year.

Gordon Tootoosis had served as the vice-president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, which his father founded.

Prior to North of 60 his first acting role was in Alien Thunder alongside Donald Sutherland and Chief Dan George and then went on to be cast in various roles including MacGyver, Friday The 13th: The Series and Air Wolf.  

Wilma Pelly, who played fan favorite Elsie.

She was born in 1937 in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, and she had spent most of her adult life working in factories to make ends meet.

In the late-1980s, she suffered a workplace injury and was unable to work so to make extra money she answered a casting call for extras in Calgary and was cast in minor parts in a few films produced in the city.

When she was cast in North of 60, her wise, dignified, and funny portrayal of Elsie made her an iconic figure in Canadian Indigenous communities.

She is widely considered to be the scene-stealing performer of the show.

Wilma Pelly said of Elsie,

“She was a well-respected elder, I believe a medicine woman, and medicine women in native communities are very well-respected. So, I played the role of a very well-respected lady.”

If you look at the cast photo you will see that there was a large Indigenous representation, but what you can’t see is the relative inexperience of many of the actors.

Tina Keeper said in 2019,

“Most of us, except Gordon Tootoosis and Tom Jackson, were pretty green. The young Indigenous actors, we were all from theatre. I’d done a couple of days on film, but, like, four days, and that was it. I’d never been on television.”

The relative inexperience in acting allowed the cast to build their characters, according to Tom Jackson.

To ensure North of 60 represented northern communities correctly, Samuels and Grisby travelled to the Northwest Territories prior to filming to work with the South Slavey First Nation.

Both Samuels and Grigsby brough South Slavey Nation members as advisors on the show. There were South Slavey language speakers, costume designers and even flew down drummers when needed.

Tina Keeper said,

“Everything was so closely aligned with the South Slavey people, all their practices informed our practices, and then we also had on set, an Indigenous liaison.”

Tom Jackson relates how the show was influenced by others.

Andrew Wreggitt, who began writing on the show in season 2, said that North of 60 was a show where you wrote for the audience, more than any other show he worked on before.

He said,

“I always remember who we are writing about and who is watching us. How is it going to play to the people who actually know what this stuff is really like? There is a sense of responsibility that goes with writing for the show.”

With that the scene was set… for the groundbreaking show that would change Canadian TV history

When North of 60 hit the airwaves on date, it caught many off-guard.

The dramatic storytelling didn’t shy away from controversial issues, and it was something rarely seen in Canadian productions at the time.

Patricia Hluchy, who wrote a review for Macleans in December 1992, stated,

“On the evidence of the first three hours, the series is as somber as a northern winter…The question for the CBC is, will viewers lose patience with such unremitting gloom”

Hluchy, felt the show was too dark, those who agreed were not fans.

She continued,

“The constant sparring in the first three hours becomes tiresome. It is a relief when, in the third episode, bush pilot Al comes to town to propose to Sarah, dropping flower petals from his plane and serenading her. But the producers undercut those touches of whimsy, suggesting midway through the show that Al is seriously disturbed.”

In the first season, alcoholism was a major theme, with both Samuels and Grisby working to change the image of what many saw as the quote, “drunken Indian”, and portray the characters as human beings, rather than stereotypes.

Producers instead chose to portray Leon Deela, played by Erroll Kinistino as a tragic character, one who deeply loved his family but struggled with his addiction and wanted to defeat it.

With the theme, the villain of the series early on quickly emerged with Albert Golo, the bootlegger, who provided alcohol to people in the dry community of Lynx River.

Rather than be a one-note villain, Golo was a complex character. He was smart, cunning and someone who could be at home negotiating deals in Parliament, just as easily as in the backcountry of the Canadian North.

In fact, the character used to canoe with Pierre Trudeau and kept a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on his wall, signed by the former prime minister.

He had also taken part in the Canadian Constitution negotiations in the early-1980s. Golo’s philosophy was not one of evil, but providing something people wanted, and keeping them from resorting to drinking shoe polish as Leon Deela did in one episode. He was more libertarian than evil.

As production on the first season continued, producers adjusted how they dealt with things on the set and adjusted to be more respectful of South Slavey culture.

For example…. elders from the nation served as background performers or extras… on any production, background performers do not eat with the main cast.

On North of 60, that was not the case.

Tina Keeper said,

“Elders are sacred to us. So, we had to change those things we weren’t comfortable with. Our background performers ate with us. They had similar trailers to us. Those are things that changed because we’re always together for so many years.”

Lynx River is a fictional town so there was a conscious effort to avoid establishing shots of the community. The town was often shown from a great distance. One of the few times you see the community from the air was when Officer Olsen arrived in the first episode. According to Dean Bennett, the director of photography, the focus was instead on people’s faces, their hearts, and souls in his words. This required tight lensing.

The early seasons also featured very low colour saturation, to give North of 60 a muted quality and a sense of desolation and loneliness.

The look for the first year was modelled on the 1970s film Deliverance, before the show evolved with time to become less muted.

The colour saturation was not the only change to North of 60 as it progressed.

John Oliver, who played the RCMP officer Eric Olsen left the show after its second season after his off-screen relationship with Tina Keeper ended.

In 1994, he was charged with assault for an altercation with Keeper.

A few months later, he was dropped from the series, with producers denying that it was related to the assault charge.

Keeper later dropped the assault charge.

With the departure of Oliver, Keeper became the lead actor on the series.

But her character needed a partner and for that they cast Robert Bockstael as Corporal Brian Fletcher.

Prior to his role on North of 60, Bockstael was known for his voice work on shows such as Teddy Ruxpin and Babar, before moving into live action shows with appearances on Forever Knight, Street Legal and Counterstrike.

He had also auditioned and been shortlisted for the original part of Eric Olsen before Oliver won the role.

Auditioning for the show was no easy task and required him to travel back and forth from Toronto to Calgary to screen test with Keeper.

Bockstael remained with the show for the rest of its run and earned two Gemini Award nominations.

Prior to North of 60 he had little experience with Indigenous people, and he called the process of being on the show a wonderful learning experience.

In 1994, Tantoo Cardinal joined the cast playing Betty Moses. Cardinal brought with her a great deal of acting experience, having appeared in many films including Dances with Wolves, Legends of the Fall and Smoke Signals.

Then, in 1996, both Samuels and Grisby left the show to create another tv show called Black Harbour.

With the departure of the creators, it fell to producers Tom Cox, Doug MacLeod and Peter Lauterman to take over the creative direction of the show.

This allowed the show to evolve.

Cox said in an interview in the early-2000s,

“Every year at the beginning of the year, we would sit down and say, what do we want to deal with this year. What is the focus for the year? Before even looking at how the characters would evolve for the year.”

The series continued to earn praise for its portrayal of Teevee, who began as a troubled youth and eventually matured, becoming the band chief by the end of the series.

Few could have envisioned that arc for the character.

In the first episode, he mooned the new RCMP officer and threw a brick through his window. By the last episode he was a leader of his people and someone who traditionally honoured the moose he killed by the final episode of the series.

House said of his character,

“I think the character was so lovable because he was a character you could relate to. A character that reminded you of yourself when you were young, a character that went through these steps that everyone could relate. You loved to see what he would do from episode to episode, a character you loved to hate.”

Cox stated that there was no plan to give Teevee a redemption arc, as they didn’t know if they would even get renewed past the first season.

The off-screen troubles of actor Dakota House were also a challenge.

House struggled with alcohol addiction during his time on North of 60 and had several brushes with the law, including a charge of spousal abuse in 1994, and an impaired driving charge in 1995.

In 1997 was attacked by four men in his apartment, leaving him with a fractured skull and part of his ear torn off.

Cox said,

“Dakota House was an extremely talented guy. He had his own troubles and that made it challenging. At some points, we were ready to give up…It was a problem, but at the same time, he was a real professional on set. He was one of the real pros at a very young age, far, far beyond his years.”

Throughout Canada, the show was must-see television for Indigenous viewers. For the actors on the show, it took time before they saw the impact the show was having.

House said of that impact,

 “I don’t think that we really understood the impact it was having. I look back now and it’s like as an indigenous youth I was one of the pioneers that kicked open the doors for all of our young people. Because there was never a show that our people could identify with and not only that, one that could put the stereotype out there and wipe it away.”

Despite how much it was loved by Canadian audiences, especially Indigenous viewers, and those in the Canadian North, North of 60 was becoming a victim of its own success.

Under the policies of Telefilm, a Crown Corporation that finances and promotes Canadian productions, a production cannot receive agency funding for more than five seasons.

North of 60 was so successful but it was also considered “too Canadian” and unlike shows such as Due South and The Beachcombers, it was not attracting many viewers outside the Great White North.

Add in the cost of $900,000 per episode to make the show, there simply wasn’t any more funding for it.

It was one of the most popular shows on CBC, but without money from international markets, surviving for a sixth season was unlikely.

In the end, producers got that sixth season thanks to technically making season five a two-part season, with a gap of about six months in the middle.

That season proved to be its last as CBC cancelled it. The last episode airing on Dec. 18, 1997.

From 1994 to 1997, North of 60 was nominated for 48 Gemini Awards, known today as the Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Dramatic Series every year in that span. Of those nominations, it won Best Writing in a Dramatic Series in 1994 and 1998, Best Performance by an Actress in a Guest Role in 1996 for Tantoo Cardinal. Tina Keeper also won the Best Actress Award in 1997 and was nominated five times during the show’s run.

Although the show went off the air it didn’t mean it was the end to the North of 60 story.

Five television movies were released as fans clamored for more stories from Lynx River.

There was In The Blue Ground in 1999, Trial By Fire in 2000, Dream Storm in 2001, Another Country in 2003 and Distant Drumming in 2003.

In 2001, after a flood of viewer requests came in to APTN, the network began a yearly North of 60 marathon, a tradition that continues to this day.

Could the show come back? There seems to be many fans who would love to see just that.

In an interview with CBC in December 2018, co-creator Barbara Samuels stated that they have talked about it with Tina Keeper and producer Tom Cox. Samuels stated that with many Indigenous issues at the forefront in Canada today, the conditions are ripe for a reboot.

As for the actors, they have gone on to various levels of success.

Tina Keeper continued to act in various films until 2006 when she was elected to the House of Commons as the Liberal MP for Churchill, Manitoba. In Parliament, she served as the Official Opposition’s Critic for Public Health and Canadian Heritage. She lost her re-election bid in 2008 but continues to be politically active and was an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Committee.

After 2008, she went back to acting, having parts in Cashing In, Mohawk Girls, Heartland and several films including Stellar and Falls Around Her.

In 2019, she was awarded the Earle Grey Award from the Canadian Screen Awards. This lifetime achievement award is given out once per year. Past recipients include Gordon Pinsent, Donald Sutherland, Ernie Coombs, the cast of SCTV, Graham Greene and Paul Gross. She was the second Indigenous actress, after Tantoo Cardinal, to receive the award since its creation in 1972.

Keeper said,

“My experience on North of 60 sort of came on the heels of The Beachcombers, which is very Canadiana. And now we have Heartland, which has become sort of another Canadian staple. But when you’re one of those projects that really speaks to all Canadians and you have … all the rest of Canada watching the show, you become part of really kind of the pop culture of the country.”

After he left the series, John Oliver only acted for a few more years in shows such as Murder She Wrote and The X-Files before fading from the public eye. His last role was in The Sentinel in 1997.

Gordon Tootoosis remained active in Indigenous activism after North of 60, appearing in Pocahontas, The X-Files, Due South, Reindeer Games and Smallville, to name a few.

With Tantoo Cardinal, he founded the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company and in 2011 he returned to the stage after 15 years for a role in Gordon Winter at the Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon. Sadly, he died soon after on July 5, 2011, from pneumonia.

Tantoo Cardinal continues to act since North of 60 ended, including in the shows Arctic Air, Mohawk Girls and Outlander. In 2009, she was awarded the Order of Canada, and in 2012 she portrayed Regan in an all-Indigenous production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. In 2021, she was awarded the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.

Tom Jackson continues to act to this day, appearing most recently in episodes of Outlander and Supergirl. He also continues to make music, with his most recent album The Essential releasing in 2018. Awarded the Order of Canada in 2000, Jackson is most well-known now for his charity work. He hosted the annual Huron Carole for 17 years, which raised money for the Canadian Association of Food Banks. He can also be found walking the streets of Calgary to this day, helping people who are down on their luck and battling addiction.

One of the most successful actors to come out of North of 60 is Adam Beach, who played Nevada for four episodes. He has gone on to appear in several major Hollywood films including Flags of Our Fathers and Suicide Squad. He also starred in Arctic Air from 2012 to 2012, for which he received a Canadian Screen Awards nomination. For his role in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, he received a Golden Globe nomination. Most recently, in 2021 he appeared in the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated film The Power of the Dog.

Dakota House was able to beat his addiction soon after North of 60 ended and he launched Going Miles, a self-help and mentorship group for Indigenous youth. In 2002, he published Dancers in the Sky, a children’s book based on the Cree story about the origins of the aurora borealis. He acts periodically in films, with his most recently in 2021 in The Demented. He also ran in the 2019 Alberta election with the Alberta Party, finishing third in the Peace River riding.

As for Wilma Pelly, she appeared in various film and television productions, usually as a grandmother or village elder. She also acted on stage at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. She passed away on Dec. 28, 2020, in Calgary.

For Bragg Creek, it has enjoyed continual tourists thanks to the show. People have come from the United States, as well as many Indigenous people from northern Canada who want to see the setting of the show. Some people have come from as far away as Poland and Germany to see the Lynx River filming location.

That is the end of the story for North of 60, but while the show is no longer on the air, its impact is still felt to this day in several different ways.

Since North of 60 went off the air, the television landscape has changed in terms of Indigenous representation.

Recently, in the third season of Anne with an E, Indigenous characters were not only introduced, but had a storyline that centred on residential school when a 12-year-old Mi’kmaq girl was taken to a residential school in Nova Scotia before she escaped. She was then recaptured and put back into the school.

In 2017’s Wonder Woman, Canadian actor Eugene Brave Rock played Chief Napi, a demi-god of the Blackfoot who accompanies Wonder Woman on her journey across Europe. Worried that the film would rely on stereotypes, Brave Rock spoke with the director, Patty Jenkins, about his concerns. She responded by giving him complete control over his character to ensure proper Indigenous representation in the film.

On Canadian television, several shows have followed on the path that North of 60 blazed including Moose TV from 2007 to 2008, Blackstone from 2010 to 2015, Mohawk Girls from 2014 to 2017, Trickster in 2020 and Tribal, which began airing in 2020.

Thank you to Tom Jackson for speaking with me about the show. If you are a patron, you can watch my entire interview with Tom Jackson right now. Become a patron at

Now if you will excuse me, I bought the entire series on Apple TV and am going to sit down and binge it.

Information from Macleans, IMDB, CBC, APTN, Wikipedia, Walking Eagle News,, Queens Journal, MMA Crossfire, Calgary Herald,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: