• Bee Nation follows the inspirational stories of six students in the first-ever First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee in Canada (Canada Media Fund)Source: Canada Media Fund
Documentary Bee Nation follows the inspirational stories of six students in the first-ever First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee in Canada as they strive to make it to the National Championships in Toronto.
Sophie Verass

13 Apr 2018 - 2:24 PM  UPDATED 9 Apr 2019 - 9:16 AM

Since the success of 2002 acclaimed documentary, Spellbound, a whole sub-genre grouped around spelling bee competitions emerged in the 21st Century.

Our fascination with overperforming children and their pushy parents not only makes for entertaining viewing, but throw that in with elimination and time pressure, and you've got yourself some grade-A film content.  

Canada's Bee Nation, however, is one spelling competition story that stands out from the rest.

Directed by award-winning director, Lana Šlezić, this inspiring film transcends stereotypes often associated with Indigenous people, documenting the inspirational stories within the inaugural First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee in Canada.

Set in the breathy landscapes of Saskatchewan Reserves, we're introduced to First Nations communities where ice-fishing is a part of the school curriculum and powwow dances are a regular neighbourhood get-together. Family and community are at the heart of First Nations' life in the Saskatchewan province.

But so too is disadvantage and hardship, and these tribal communities are sorely affected by colonisation and ongoing Eurocentric oppression. Subsequently, their local schools are under-funded, under-attended and the future is more dimly lit for young Indigenous students compared to other Canadian alumni. This is a major concern for First Nations people whose children are not just the future generations of society at large, but the future leaders of their communities and gatekeepers of culture.   

Cree youth worker and former special education teacher, Pauline Favel sought change. Dedicated to helping First Nations children excel, particularly those with learning difficulties, Favel developed a spelling bee specifically for Indigenous students in order to include them in Canada's thriving spelling competition scene.   

In 2016, history was made; a Provincial Spelling Bee for First Nations children would engage with bright-minded Indigenous students and 'get them ready for what's out there when they leave school'.

Over 100 participants aged 6-14 competed for the provincial title, but also, for the opportunity to go on to the 29th annual National Championships of the Spelling Bee of Canada. This meant travelling to Toronto, Ontario and in most cases, mark the first time these children and their families have been on an aeroplane.  

And this is how Bee Nation's narrative goes beyond the buzz of competition. With poverty permeating their communities, a potential win for a child can be seen by their parents and caregivers as an exit strategy out of systematic hardship and a chance to further pursue their excellence.  

The film invests in six young participants and their families; ambitious student with "Little Warrior" status, William Kaysaywaysemat III (9 years); cross country athlete, Makayla Cannepotato (12 years); video game enthusiast, Alexander "Xander" Johansson (13 years), math-loving hockey fan, Thomas Edward Dale Isbister (11 years) and high school best friends Savannah Nicks and Josie Singer. 

Following the journeys of these gifted students, audiences of Bee Nation are not only exposed to the issues facing Indigenous people in Canada today, but more importantly, are reminded of the capabilities, the motivation, the talent and love and support within First Nations' communities.

Bee Nation showcases Indigenous excellence and it is a joy to watch First Nations young ones shine.


Bee Nation airs Sunday, 14 April at 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34). Catch up is available on SBS On Demand.