Arts·Governor General's Awards

'I reached for the stars, your voice told me I could': A poetic tribute to Tantoo Cardinal

In a career that has spanned over 50 years, Cardinal has used her gifts for good.

In a career that has spanned over 50 years, Cardinal has used her gifts for good

Tantoo Cardinal at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards in 2019. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

Tantoo Cardinal will receive the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. Watch the televised special celebrating the laureates on CBC Television and CBC Gem on November 26 at 7pm ET.

When I was a child, I wanted to make a difference in the world. When I saw someone I thought was in need of comfort or friendship, I wanted to do everything I could to fix what it was that was upsetting them. I believe that is what Tantoo Cardinal has done with her career of more than 50 years in the television and film industry.

Most notable for some people might be her role as Arlene in Smoke Signals, but for me there's one role she played that will have an impression on me for the rest of my life.

In the mid-90s, I used to watch a show on television called North of 60. It was a great source of inspiration for me, and among the people I looked up to the most, Tantoo's character Betty Moses was one I wanted to be like. She wanted to help people who were struggling with substance addiction make their lives better and gain back their sense of self-reliance. She encouraged them and tried to make sure they had a safe place to go when things got too difficult for them to handle on their own and that they had life-skills programs. Although the character appeared in only seven episodes, these were some of the most powerful for me — because even though it was just a television show, back in those young days, I still saw it as real life. If I saw people were hurting and others were trying to fix it, I would do the same too, and I was going to show them what I did someday.

Tantoo Cardinal at an event at Calgary's Forest Lawn High School in 2004. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Just as her character did in North of 60, Tantoo has also worked hard to create spaces of knowledge, creativity and perhaps even a sense of belonging. In 1999, she helped found the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, which was later renamed the Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre in honour of the space's co-founder, actor Gordon Tootoosis. Nikaniwin is a Cree Plains word that means "leadership," and that too was a place where they wanted Indigenous youth to thrive and get the culture teachings and life-skills they needed. It's more important now than ever for Indigenous youth — and people who are no longer youth, but still need a little encouragement through their struggles — to be able to find people that can listen to them and give them their voice back.

In 2009 when she was made a member of the Order of Canada, which was bestowed upon her by then Governor General Michaëlle Jean, I was so proud to see Tantoo's career and her many other efforts recognized in such a way. Now, with this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Award, she continues to have that incredible work honoured. She has given hope, courage, motivation and strength to those who need it the most — myself included.

There's power in storytelling, whether it's your own words or you're the vessel for ones that are written by other people. It's in the way you deliver them, the passion you deliver them with that helps the message of those words reach the audience they were meant for. Tantoo Cardinal has had that power from the beginning and it has only gotten stronger. We all use our talents for good because they are true gifts, and she has used her gift well.

I reached for the stars, your voice told me I could.
I wanted to make a difference, and one day I would

Find my voice in the written word, and stories I will share.
A child finding her place in life, your voice too was there.

Now as a woman still trying her best, I will hold my head up high
As I set out on my path to heal the broken hearts and dry the tears they cry.

To create a world of hope, just like the one your talent brings.
And tell the people of the world, hold onto hope if only just one thing.

Everyone has their own gifts to offer the world, that will in turn make it strong.
And you taught me how to find my power and a place where I belong.

Strong your voice did make me and I know my day will come,
That I help people carry strength, no matter where they come from.

And may your light always shine so bright as the honours come your way.
Because as mine grows too, it will make you proud someday.

The warmest of hearts and the brightest flames guides a path for people to see.
Thank you for helping me give it all and help me see what I could be.

Tantoo Cardinal in her breakout role as Black Shawl in 1990's Dances With Wolves. (Orion Pictures)

Watch the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureate ceremony November 26 at 7pm ET on CBC Television and CBC Gem.


Jennifer Hansford is a freelance writer based in Espanola, Ontario. She grew up in Whitefish Falls and has always had a passion for writing both creatively and by using journalism. You can find her on Twitter @HansfordJen

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