Actor Adam Beach is very conscious of trying to serve as a role model for aboriginal youth and people who live in northern communities. That's one reason he's put his Hollywood career on hold to concentrate on Canadian projects like Arctic Air, the new CBC-TV adventure drama to debut Jan. 10.
Beach was in Toronto Friday to promote the series as CBC held a launch event for its winter season, which will also include the new comedy Mr. D, Kevin O'Leary's new reality series Redemption Inc. and a continuation of Don Cherry's story with the TV movie The Wrath of Grapes.
In Arctic Air, Beach plays Bobby Martin, part owner of a small, family-run airline that serves communities in the North.
"He's very much a real guy that's trying to do good, but gets himself in these predicaments that build chaos," Beach said. Bobby crashes a plane in one episode and tries to sell one to raise some cash in another.
'I try to motivate the younger generation dealing with drugs, gang-related issues and just community involvement...this show will encourage the younger generation to grow' —Adam Beach
"He's just trying to help out but the situations he puts himself in make more work," Beach said.
The Salteaux actor says he enjoys Bobby's optimism and sense of humour and is looking forward to having the character mature as the series evolves.
"I talk to a lot of reservations. I try to motivate the younger generation dealing with drugs, gang-related issues and just community involvement, how to grow and this show will encourage the younger generation to grow, as illustrated by the character Bobby Martin," Beach said.
A defining role
He compares Arctic Air to The Beachcombers in its sense of adventure and potential to focus attention on a little-known part of Canada: in this case, the thriving communities of the North.
"Yellowknife is the background of the story. When you look at what we're shooting in Yellowknife, it's absolutely beautiful," he said.
But there are also problems with shooting in the North, including frozen lenses and snow so heavy the camera can't pick out the characters. Part of the series is also being shot in Vancouver.
Beach's previous roles have included films such as Flags of Our Fathers and Cowboys & Aliens, as well as TV shows like Law & Order: SVU and Big Love. However, he's put his career in Los Angeles aside for now. He embraced the Arctic Air role when Ian Weir, producer of the Asian gang miniseries Dragon Boys, approached him with the project.
"This probably will define my career, because of my character, because of me being from Canada and a show that is going to be nationally accepted and viewed as a new demographic for Canadian television," he said.
Arctic Air is the only new drama debuting in January, though Republic of Doyle returns with a long-awaited episode starring Russell Crowe and Heartland resumes its family-friendly drama.
Teacher who fakes it
In the half-hour comedy Mr. D, Toronto actor and comedian Gerry Dee brings his shtick about the life of a teacher and the crazy characters inside every school to the small screen.
Mr. D, aka Mr. Duncan, is barely coping as a private school teacher in an unnamed city – which is actually Halifax, sitting in for anywhere.
"I graduated with a phys-ed degree and ended up teaching history, geography and world religion," Dee says of his own teaching experience.
"[The show]'s kind of about how hard that was and how I faked my way through it, because you could never tell your students that I actually don't know this stuff. That was the job I got.
"I have attention deficit disorder and so does my character, so it's hard to stand and talk for an hour. I drift off-topic. I talk about the weekend. I watch movies I want to watch — not your best teacher, but he thinks he's great."
Dee performed standup comedy routines about his experience teaching before selling CBC on the series, which he is also writing and co-producing.
Ex-cons compete for financing
The other new flagship show is Redemption Inc., in which business guru O'Leary works with a group of 10 ex-cons, before advancing $100,000 to one of them to kick start a new business idea. His co-host is Brian O'Dea, an ex-con himself.
O'Leary said creating the show completely changed his perceptions about the criminal justice system and the way it works.
"I always assumed that if you did a crime and you were convicted and you went to prison and served your time, you could then go anywhere you wanted — you'd served your time. But these people end up being tainted in a way that's unique," he said.
"And here's why: you can't borrow any money, you can't get a credit card, you can't issue public securities. You can't work for anybody, because anybody who does a background check on you — you never hear from them again. What happens to these people? They can't support themselves, they can't support their families. Within 20 months they're back in prison and I, as a taxpayer, find that incredibly offensive."
Redemption Inc. sees 10 former convicts, all out of prison for a considerable amount of time, competing for lucrative financing from the Dragon's Den star. O'Leary says it's not a charity project: the contestants were expected to prove themselves.
"I was completely wrong about what I thought they'd be like. They're very resourceful, they're very entrepreneurial, they're able to work together and apart, sometimes against each other," he said.
"In some ways they're better than their counterparts on the outside because they've had to live such a difficult life. You'll be really blown away by what happens when you watch this show. This is unique television."
Kirstine Stewart, CBC vice-president of English programming, said the public broadcaster had a very successful year in 2011, thanks to ongoing hits like Rick Mercer Report, Republic of Doyle and Dragon's Den and critical acclaim for shows like Michael: Tuesdays & Thursdays.
However, she admitted she is bracing for a cut in CBC's parliamentary allocation, which will inevitably mean the network won't be able to create as much Canadian programming.
"You can't just make it cheaper. People see through that," Stewart said.
"It's not going to be easy. It's a really unfortunate time. CBC is on a roll. CBC's budget is not just what we get from the government, but we have our own revenue. When you talk about that $1.8 billion budget, $1 billion is from the government, the rest is generated. We are generating a lot of activity across this country. We use all those resources and we plough them back into programming. We don't have shareholders...none of us have stock options. The only stakeholders are the Canadian people."