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Jennifer Podemski won't be silenced
The actor reveals the hardships Indigenous performers still face, and why it's high time to hold the Canadian entertainment industry accountable
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, February 24, 2018 – Page R3

Here's what it's like to be a successful Indigenous actor in Canada in 2018: Jennifer Podemski has a list of television and film roles stretching back to 1991, including Degrassi: The Next Generation, Take This Waltz and Dance Me Outside. She's produced documentary series (The Other Side) and awards galas (the annual Indspire Awards). She's travelled North America as a mentor and advocate for Indigenous issues.

ACTRA Toronto recently named her their 2018 Actor of Excellence; she'll make a speech at their ceremony on Feb. 24. Yet she's still asked to audition for one-line roles on Canadian TV shows.

"That speaks volumes," Podemski said over coffee this week in Toronto. "Not about me or my career or my ability, but about the consciousness that we're up against."

The ACTRA award is coming at a propitious time for Podemski, 44. She believes in manifesting what she wants, and when the call came, she was figuring out what to manifest next. As an actor, she just wrapped an arc on Season 3 of the CTV series Cardinal. As a producer, she recently delivered 13 episodes of Future History, the coming doc series for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) that sets out to reclaim Indigenous knowledge.

As the mother of two children, 6 and 8, she wants to be around to pack lunches and supervise homework. And as a role model, she wants to "represent my community in the content we consume," she says. "I don't want to be famous. I want to be the person a young girl can look at and say, 'I want to be like that. If she's doing it, that means I'm important, too.' " Podemski was feeling pretty optimistic about it, too - until Feb. 9, when Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley was found not guilty of killing 22-year-old Cree man Colten Boushie.

"I'm hit so hard by this verdict," Podemski says. "I'm so angry. That is now a fateful day for all of us in the Indigenous community. It means we're much farther behind in human rights and our place in society and how we're seen. He almost represents the final straw of the abuse we collectively are able to take."

As a country, Canada reminds Podemski of "that family or family member we all know, the one who is constantly talking about how bad other families are, and meanwhile, is so deeply in denial of their abuse of their own family." Yet she can't even urge people to protest - "When Indigenous people protest," she says, "they do round dances. They hold hands in circles in public spaces.

And riot police are called. These are stories we should rewrite."

Podemski has been a storyteller since senior kindergarten, when, in her first slapstick routine, she took a pie in the face. "I wanted to get it right, so I practised," she remembers. "It was a lot of whipped cream and aluminum tins."

Every time her family gathered, she cajoled her younger sisters Tamara and Sarah (both now actors) to perform with her: "We'd sing, dance, make tickets, make people give us money."

When Jennifer was in Grade 3, her paternal grandmother took her to see the play Pal Joey. "Judy Marshak was the star, and I'd seen her in an Alka-Seltzer commercial," Jennifer says, laughing.

"I was over the moon."

Podemski's mother, who is Saulteaux, and her father, who is Israeli, were 17 and 20 when they had her; her mother struggled with alcoholism, and her parents split when she was 12. She and her sisters lived with her father in Toronto, and she dived headlong into the arts - she took theatre classes at the local synagogue, played clarinet in solo shows at retirement homes and studied modern dance at the city's Claude Watson School for the Arts. By the time she graduated, she knew she wanted to act, and roles followed, including a twoyear run on the TV series The Rez.

But her aha moment happened while she was visiting her sister Tamara, who was appearing in Rent on Broadway. Jennifer met with a New York agent who gave her strict rules for how to "pass" at auditions.

"I was sitting on the floor, putting together what the agent called a Hot Sheet - all the great things people had said about me," Podemski recalls.

"I had an epiphany: I don't want to be part of an industry if I have to pander and lose my sense of self. What's on this page is a joke; it has nothing to do with who I am. If this is making it, I don't want it."

From the outside, it seemed like she was well known. People saw her as the native Canadian actress. "But if you're working once a year on the one native project that comes along, that's not much of a career."

She realized that she had an obligation to change the world.

"Our screen stories become our collective mythology. They create a narrative," she says. "I want to change the narrative for Indigenous people."

She returned to Toronto and started a production company, Big Soul, with a partner, Laura Milliken. "We did a lot of convincing," Podemski says. "I was 25. We were pitching series, business models, communities, asking everyone for money. A lot of people said, 'You're so adorable.' But some ended up championing us," including APTN, which was just launching.

As lucky as Podemski feels, however, she's also alert to how much needs to change. "There's an unfortunate paradigm when it comes to Indigenous stories, and how to cast Indigenous people," she says.

"I repeatedly say this to producers, directors, casting directors: You don't have to have a native storyline to hire a native actor. Why not put rich, threedimensional Indigenous characters into mainstream shows? It doesn't always have to be an issue-based story."

At the same time, Podemski wants to see more Indigenous people in control of their stories.

(She herself wants to direct, and has a couple of scripts in the works.) "So many of us have built careers on a non-Indigenous person writing an Indigenous story - because that's all there was," she says.

"There are a lot of parallels with the women's movement.

Women have been working for men, within an infrastructure created by men, speaking men's words, for a long time. But we're seeing very clearly that is coming to an end. I think the same thing has to happen with the Indigenous community."

She's heard all the objections: The stories aren't commercial enough; television and films aren't about education; we're here to make money, not change lives.

She refuses to believe them. "It comes down to: It's the right thing to do," she says. "We all have to make the decision of what side of history we want to be on. I want to be on the right side - meaning stronger futures for everyone. Why should we not live in a place where everybody is thriving?" Despite the long road ahead, Podemski calls herself "a struggling optimist. I think there's always space to find common ground. Let's stand in this common ground and rise up. Not against anyone, but against the shit we face every day. We're here for one life. Why not be the best people we can be?" Podemski has tried to quit the business several times. Something always draws her back.

"The voices of my ancestors are very loud," she says, laughing.

"They come from both my parents' sides to say, 'We didn't have a voice. You're going to have to bear this load.' That, to me, is very real."

She has made one important decision. She's not going to audition for one-line roles any more.

"I am done," she says firmly, "with that."

Associated Graphic

Jennifer Podemski, seen in Toronto on Feb. 12, says she's still asked to audition for one-line roles on TV despite a prolific, nearly three-decade-long career.


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