TORONTO – About 20 years ago, Toronto-born screen star Jennifer Podemski was growing frustrated with a lack of work for Indigenous actors and storytellers such as herself. She took matters into her own hands by becoming a producer.
“It was this mounting frustration and anger around the inequity, I suppose,” Podemski, who is of mixed First Nations and Israeli descent, said in a recent phone interview.
“I specifically was frustrated with how native people and native stories were so far behind in terms of relevance and how often we saw them.”
Podemski has since produced various projects — from the show “Moccasin Flats” to the film “Empire of Dirt” and the upcoming doc series “Future History” — while continuing her acting career and mentoring and training other Indigenous artists.
Her body of work as well as her advocacy will be recognized Saturday as she receives an Award of Excellence at the ACTRA Awards in Toronto.
While Podemski said she’s encouraged with the opportunities arising for Indigenous actors and storytellers in Canada these days — with the creation of the Indigenous Screen Office and various government initiatives — she feels there’s more work to be done.
“I flip-flop between being super encouraged and inspired, and devastated and frustrated at the state of affairs when it comes to Indigenous stories and how the mainstream is opening its doors or not opening its doors to the storytellers,” said Podemski, whose film credits include a starring role in Bruce McDonald’s “Dance Me Outside.”
“I’ve been a producer for 20 years, and if I was to look back at 20 years, yeah, things are easier today for me. But they’re not as easy as I thought they would be, with the amount of experience that I have.
“The similarity that I make often is, ‘Wherever the women’s movement is, the Indigenous movement seems to be behind it.'”
Podemski adds that of course she can relate to the current conversations around female representation in the screen industry.
“That’s super important,” she said, “but the parallel story to that is that there is an entire community left out of the storytelling fabric of this entire country and it’s the people, the many, many nations that were here, that are from here.”
Podemski has been acting and performing onstage since elementary school. In the late ’90s, she opened her first production company, Big Soul Productions, with Laura Milliken.
The company produced projects including the series “The Seventh Generation” and “Moccasin Flats.”
“The Seventh Generation,” which aired on APTN, was a way to combat “shame in our community” and tell uplifting stories of triumph and those who overcame the odds, Podemski said.
But they had trouble getting funding and had to create financial sponsorships around specific episodes.
“At the time, we had a couple of thousand dollars per episode to make the show from a licence fee from APTN and we tried to pitch it to every single network in Canada,” Podemski recalled.
“There were two things that we heard, one was, ‘Don’t you have your own network?’ and the other one was, ‘We did a native story last year.'”
In 2005, Podemski started her own production company, Redcloud Studios Inc. Her upcoming “Future History” is about the reclamation of Indigenous knowledge through the eyes of two hosts.
“As an actor, I want producers and network executives and writers to know that you don’t have to have a native storyline just to hire a native actor, but why is that such a deeply cemented reality for us?” said Podemski, whose recent acting credits include the series “Hard Rock Medical,” “Cardinal” and “Private Eyes.”
“So if I had one wish that I could have (it would be to) just make everyone forget that somehow they had to construct often inaccurate storylines just to get that native storyline in there, we could play lots of different characters.
“And then on the producing side, the content-creating side, I would say there is so much potential to create realities for Indigenous characters that are beyond expectation, and whether that’s in the sci-fi realm or the horror realm or comedy, romance, all these different genres.”