'The power to save lives': Jennifer Podemski's must-read call for Indigenous representation in media

The actor and producer received the Award of Excellence at the 2018 ACTRA Awards this past weekend.

The actor and producer received the Award of Excellence at the 2018 ACTRA Awards this past weekend

Jennifer Podemski at the 2018 Actra Awards. (George Pimentel)

This is the full transcript of the speech film and television actor and producer Jennifer Podemski gave at this past weekend's ACTRA Awards in Toronto, where she received the Award of Excellence.

Hi everyone.

I want to begin by telling you that I am wearing a red dress tonight because I stand in solidarity with the families of the over 1500 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada who continue to be ignored by the mainstream.

I want to begin with my very long list of thank yous.

To ACTRA Toronto for honouring me with this award. To all of the people in this room that I have shared the screen with over the past 30 years, I see Sonja Smits, Tantoo Cardinal, Jani Lauzon and so many more. To all of the teachers who saw something special in me and nurtured it. To my peers, co-workers, teammates, mentors, my long time agent Celia Chassels who empowered me to take on the world, my agent Emma and everyone at GGA past and present, my employers and partners. To my nearest and dearest friends (who are here tonight) thank you for your endless support and love over the years and tolerating me cancelling trips and plans because I booked a job. Being friends with an actor can really suck. To my family (many of whom are here tonight) for raising me up and for always sitting in the front row of every show throughout my life and cheering for me. To my grandparents, my parents, my amazing, talented sisters, my incredibly supportive husband and my two beautiful children Willow and Michael: see I told you Mommy has a job!

I'm telling you this story because, as an actors or producers, we often hear people say "it's not like we are saving lives". But I think they're wrong. I think that the work we do, the industry we are in and the stories we collectively tell, do have the power to save lives.- Jennifer Podemski

I am one of the lucky ones, I have had so much support throughout my life and I am living proof that what you nurture, grows.

I feel so grateful to be here. It is such an incredible privilege to have a career as an actor. It's one of the only careers, you know, when you're a kid and you tell people that you want to be an actor, they never actually believe you will be, or can be. So yes, here I stand 30 years into this career that I dreamed of doing when I was a child, and I feel pretty grateful.

On the topic of gratitude and privilege, I want to take a moment to recognize all of those people who came before me. On my mother's side I am Anishinaabe, Leni Lenape and Métis. I descend from a long line of powerful leaders, advocates and medicine people, many of whom were persecuted, murdered, imprisoned, stolen and sent away to residential school and Indian hospitals or disenfranchised. On my father's side, I am Jewish, I descend from musicians, entrepreneurs and artists who were persecuted, dehumanized and sent to concentration camps. It is not lost on me that I have been pulled, my entire life, towards a career of storytelling, imagining, mining for the truth, advocating for equity, equality and love; it makes perfect sense. I have been gifted an opportunity that my ancestors did not have. A voice and a platform.

Jennifer Podemski (centre-left) with her mother and sisters at the 2018 Actra Awards. (Debra Goldblatt )

Don't get me wrong, when I started all of this all I wanted to do was sing and dance and perform. If there was a stage, I was on it. My oldest friend, Deb Goldblatt, is here tonight and she can attest to the fact that from grade three on, I was a performer and did everything possible to put on a show. She was my biggest, my only, fan for the longest time. Today she's known in the industry as a "PR Maven", CEO of Rock-It Promotions, and I believe I was her first client. In elementary school, she was showing me off, trying to get people to watch me sing and dance and be silly. In grade six she introduced me to the drama club at the local synagogue and that is probably where my dreams of becoming a performer really took form.

My dreams did become a reality, but things moved a lot more slowly than I imagined they would.

About four years into my professional career, I realized that being an actor on TV and in movies, had less to do with my love of it and everything to do with the platform it provided me. This became clear after the film Dance Me Outside.

Although I had already been working as an actor for several years, it was this movie that changed everything. What happened after this movie is a very important part of my story. The film was wildly successful and I became a "critically acclaimed" actor. But I wasn't working. Couldn't get an audition. What I was doing though was travelling across Canada and the US to work with native youth. It was during that time that I realized that the movie made me more relevant on a national level, it opened to the door to opportunities within the Indigenous community that I wouldn't have had otherwise, and I found myself doing the most important work I had ever done.

In many ways, being an actor was the gateway to becoming a youth worker, key note speaker, workshop facilitator and arts educator working with youth who had little to no opportunity to harness their own potential and dream big. Over time, the work became overwhelming, all consuming. The suicide, substance abuse issues, poverty and the every-day effects of inter-generational trauma proved to be more challenging to deal with than I ever imagined. I began to lose hope. In the system, in my ability and when I looked at my "industry" I lost hope in it too. There was little to nothing that reflected any kind of meaningful reflection or narrative about Indigenous people and communities, urban, rural, historical or contemporary. I realized that Indigenous people everywhere were still being persecuted and that's why the mainstream wasn't telling those stories. Because it was shameful. Shameful that our society was thriving while Indigenous people were continuing to be re-traumatized by legislation and systemic racism.

I felt desperate for positive change and I knew that I had to be part of creating that change. I was just so tired of seeing Indigenous stories filtered through a colonial lens, celebrating the colonial experience and delegitimizing Indigenous perspectives and experience.- Jennifer Podemski

At that was when I began receiving the messages —  from the universe, the creator, those who came before, I don't exactly know who — but the messages were: continue your work as a storyteller, change the conversation, shift the narrative, harness all platforms, tell the truth, stand up for what is right, represent your community, speak for those who can't speak for themselves, raise awareness, build capacity.  

And that is when and why I became a producer. I felt desperate for positive change and I knew that I had to be part of creating that change. I was just so tired of seeing Indigenous stories filtered through a colonial lens, celebrating the colonial experience and delegitimizing Indigenous perspectives and experience.

I believe that the absence of those stories and representations perpetuates very harmful narratives about Indigenous people which in turn creates divisiveness, apathy and ignorance.

Jennifer Podemksi with her husband and children at the 2018 Actra Awards. (George Pimentel )

If Indigenous perspectives and stories were woven into the Canadian narrative by way of TV and film, in an authentic and meaningful way, I believe it would save lives, inspire hope and build bridges between people and communities who are now divided.

In the summer of 2003, I was shooting Moccasin Flats, my first dramatic series as a producer that I created and produced with Laura Milliken. One of the mandates of the show was to create jobs for at risk youth living in what, at the time, was known as "Canada's worst neighbourhood". We employed 50 youth who worked behind the scenes and in front of the camera. I worked one on one with Parole officers and the police to ensure that those who needed it the most were given a fair chance at employment. By the end of the third season the Regina Police Chief told me that crime in North Central Regina went down significantly every time we would go into production. I still work with some of those youth. A few are in prison or on parole and many have made careers from themselves in the arts, politics and film and television.

If Indigenous perspectives and stories were woven into the Canadian narrative by way of TV and film, in an authentic and meaningful way, I believe it would save lives, inspire hope and build bridges between people and communities who are now divided.- Source

I'm telling you this story because, as an actors or producers, we often hear people say "it's not like we are saving lives". But I think they're wrong. I think that the work we do, the industry we are in and the stories we collectively tell, do have the power to save lives.

I also think that when we see reflections of ourselves in the media we consume, it has a way of validating our existence and empowering us to stand tall, stand up, speak out, and do amazing things. When we don't see ourselves reflected in the media we consume, we feel invisible, unimportant, othered and less than.

So, as I stand before you tonight, so grateful to have been recognized by my peers, I remind you that we all have an opportunity to make our work matter, and if you are really lucky, you will be given a platform where you will have the opportunity to speak up and speak out and maybe, just maybe, someone who really needs it will be listening and you will change, and even save, that someone's life.

Find out more about Jennifer Podemski's work here