"The Experimental Eskimos" screened for the first time at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival, the largest in North America.
It tells the story of three adolescent boys who in 1962 and 1963 were sent to school in Ottawa, 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) south of their homes in the Canadian Arctic.
Government documents show the purpose was to create leaders among a group that had only recently left their nomadic lives.
"The question was, can Eskimos be civilized?" asked Peter Ittinuar, one of the men in the film. Addressing a Toronto audience after a packed screening of the film, he noted: "We were the guinea pigs."
Footage from the 1970s and 1980s show the brash and articulate long-haired young men dressed in suits making their case to politicians, including then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
They succeeded in getting recognition within the constitution for Canada's first peoples. But the early years of being separated from their parents and uprooted from their culture took its toll.
In the film, the men speak of their anguished pasts, which included alcoholism, failed relationships, and run-ins with the law.
"It took decades before I could tell my story as I lived it," recounts Zebedee Nungak, one of the three men shown in the film. "We have served as leaders and that's good. But each one of us has lived with addictions and dysfunctions."
For more on the subject, see Eskimos: The Ultimate Aborigines and Native Documentaries and News.