Canadian actor Adam Beach finds himself walking a fine line after agreeing to be an ambassador for the federal government's Canada 150 celebrations.
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Beach — who overcame a troubled childhood on the Dog Creek reserve in Manitoba to star in Hollywood blockbusters such as Flags of Our Fathers — feels he should help pay tribute to a government that has funded some of his films, as well as his film school for Indigenous students in Winnipeg.
But he also feels that in celebrating Canada, the mistreatment of Indigenous people is often downplayed or ignored outright — something he could help change.
"I am a reminder that we will not forget the atrocities that have happened to the Aboriginal people of this country," Beach said in an interview in Winnipeg following a speech at Vision Quest, an annual conference aimed at promoting Indigenous economic development.
"But I am also a reminder of the successes that can happen when one finds their ambition to succeed in the struggles of identity that a lot of our younger generation have in this country because of the horrific past."
Struggle to change the 'one-sided story'
Beach, 44, is one of 150 people who have been selected to help promote the sesquicentennial of Confederation. He sees his role as helping to balance the story of the country's history to make sure that the dispossession of Indigenous persons, the impacts of residential schools and more are not forgotten.
"The struggle to change the one-sided story will always be an unfortunate, honest struggle, because when it comes to native people of Canada, there is a history that is horrible — it's like a horror story — that needs to be told to our future generations."
Beach's efforts to augment the voice of Indigenous people are best illustrated by his film school in Winnipeg — the Adam Beach Film Institute — which is aimed at training Indigenous students in all aspects of filmmaking, both in front of and behind the camera.
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Eventually, he'd like to see Indigenous artists be able to work outside the Hollywood or Canadian government systems, and put forward their own perspective in everything from documentaries to comedies.
"It's going to take years for us to do that, but when we join forces like this — and in the future have our own independent film fund to support our young filmmakers — we will have a voice that the world will recognize."
Beach said he's been fortunate to have a career that has been successful to the point where he can be picky about what roles he takes.
Having made his mark in the 1994 film Dance Me Outside and the 1990s CBC TV series North of 60, he later landed roles in major Hollywood films such as Windtalkers, Flags of Our Fathers and Cowboys and Aliens.
No longer confined to 'the Indian' role
In his speech to several hundred people at the Vision Quest conference, Beach recounted the time he first went to Hollywood and bunked with a friend who was dating American actress Alyssa Milano, whom Beach had a crush on.
"The day that I met her, my buddy introduced me and said, 'Hey, this is my friend that I was telling you about. This is the Indian,"' Beach recalled with a laugh.
But Beach said he does not feel stereotyped in the industry. His roles have included a wide range of characters — from a highly educated mixed-race Sioux doctor in the television movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to the chef and owner of a French restaurant in Montana in the upcoming film Juanita.
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Beach's roles are also no longer confined to "the Indian." In last year's movie Suicide Squad, he played the villain Slipknot, also known as Christopher Weiss.
"I play Slipknot, who's a Jewish chemist. Now that I'm playing him, he's a native Jewish chemist. But that's not from my point of view. It's from all the other people saying, 'Wow! I didn't know (Slipknot) was Indian."'