Toronto film critics gave Hugh Gibson's "The Stairs," about habitual drug users in the city's Regent Park community, a $100,000 award for best homegrown feature on Tuesday night.
The intimate documentary won the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award at the Toronto Film Critics Association gala, which drew in luminaries including Quebec director Denis Villeneuve, who received an award for excellence.
Gibson spent five years following social workers who help drug users through harm-reduction methods while also battling their own addiction issues at the community health centre.
"They're incredible people â€” they're funny, they're articulate, they're not what you expect," he said in an interview. "There are a lot of preconceptions about what a drug user, what a sex-trade worker is.
"You don't necessarily think of mother, grandmother, poet, someone who is funny, whip-smart, et cetera."
In his acceptance speech, he thanked those who let him into their lives and taught him about strength, resilience and "a different way of seeing street life."
"I hope that I honoured their stories," he said. "Marty, Roxanne, Greg, thank you so much.
"And also shout out to people who didn't make it over the five years," he added, putting his hand over his heart. "You're right here with me."
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sarah Polley, who announced the winner, called "The Stairs" "a huge contribution to the country and to everybody."
"Because it's shining a light on something we don't see and that's so shockingly inspiring, what these subjects of the documentary are doing, in terms of giving back to their community while facing their own struggles," she said in an interview.
"The documentary is so respectful to them and I loved it."
The Rogers Best Canadian Film Award is said to be the richest film award in the country. The runners-up, who each received $5,000, were "How Heavy This Hammer" by Kazik Radwanski and "Operation Avalanche" by Matt Johnson.
Villeneuve received the TFCA 20th Anniversary Award for Excellence, on the same day his sci-fi film "Arrival" received nine nominations for the British Academy Film Awards, including best director.
"It's quite an intense day today," he said, noting the BAFTA nominations were "totally unexpected."
Celebrated documentary maker Alanis Obomsawin received the Clyde Gilmour Award, which comes with $50,000 in Technicolor services to give to a filmmaker of her choice. She chose Amanda Strong.
"Cameraperson" by New York cinematographer Kirsten Johnson won the $5,000 Canadian Tire Allan King Documentary Award.
"Werewolf" director Ashley McKenzie of Cape Breton Island, N.S., won the $5,000 Stella Artois Jay Scott Prize for an emerging artist.
Previously announced winners include "Moonlight" for best picture and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali.
The German-Austrian father-daughter comedy "Toni Erdmann" won a leading three awards while Kenneth Lonergan's drama "Manchester by the Sea" won two.
This is the 20th anniversary of the awards.
"If you judge by our finalists for Rogers Best Canadian Film, there is an insurgent kind of breed of Canadian filmmaking that doesn't follow the rules," said TFCA outgoing president Brian D. Johnson, who is being replaced by Peter Howell of the Toronto Star.
"These are not Telefilm films, these are not big films. Only one of them has a major distributor and they're all ferociously independent films."
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press