Edmonton

Cree artist fosters next generation of Indigenous performers in Calling Lake

After two decades working in Canada’s performing arts industry, Lance Cardinal felt compelled to bring his expertise back to his home community.

'I decided that it might be time to come home to Calling Lake and bring back what I've learned'

Lance Cardinal is the founder of the Calling Lake Arts Academy. (Lance Cardinal/Facebook)

After two decades working in Canada's performing arts industry, Lance Cardinal felt compelled to bring his expertise back to his home community.

Cardinal is the founder and creative director of the Calling Lake Arts Academy, the first institution of its kind to serve the small Indigenous community in northern Alberta.

"When I was around 40 years old, I decided that it might be time to come home to Calling Lake and bring back what I've learned to the community and give back," Cardinal said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.  

"I realized that arts was an important thing that I never had in Calling Lake."

I realized that arts was an important thing that I never had in Calling Lake-Lance Cardinal

Cardinal, who is Cree, grew up in the community of about 300 people, 210 kilometres north of Edmonton. He moved to Edmonton in his early teens.  

Calling Lake had no high-school program at the time, and Cardinal was one of many young people to leave the community for education.

After attending Victoria School of Performing and Visual Arts, Cardinal went on to have a successful career as an actor, artist, producer and professional set designer before returning home four years ago.
Children of all ages have benefited from the programming at the Calling Lake Arts Academy. (Calling Lake Arts Academy/Facebook)
In Calling Lake, his academy provides artistic programming, including acting, dance, set design and crafting workshops, for young people of the Bigstone Cree Nation.

The program incorporates Cardinal's knowledge as performer and producer with Indigenous teachings and storytelling.

Cardinal said he wants to instill a passion for the arts in the next generation.

"Something that I've always heard since I was a kid is, 'If you want to leave the community, if you want to go to school, bring back what you've learned.'

"We're trying to provide an alternative for kids to succeed. And something that's not necessarily academic or sports-related."

Arts is a very big part of a healing process- Lance Cardinal

Cardinal said young people in the community are faced with many social challenges, but the visual and performing arts can help empower them to overcome that negativity.

As a young man, Cardinal found performing powerfully cathartic. He hopes his students find the same personal strength through their performances.

"Arts is a very big part of a healing process," he said.

"I always found with art, you put your soul and energy into a performance and access feelings that you might not access normally. And as you access these feelings, you end up dealing with issues from your own personal life."

Cardinal has seen children who barely speak excel on the stage.
The Calling Lake Arts Academy has been serving youth in the northern Alberta community for four years. (Calling Lake Arts Academy/Facebook)
"We just finished a very large puppetry presentation of The Nightmare Before Christmas and some of the kids in these roles are quite shy and don't even speak — and they became the stars of the show," recalled Cardinal.

"That was amazing to see."

The academy has become a gathering place for people of all ages, with clientele who range in age from 7 to 77.

Cardinal takes great satisfaction in watching his fledgling artists and actors gain confidence in their own abilities, and the sense of pride the program has fostered in the tight-knit community.

"When I came four years ago, the change is humongous," said Cardinal. "There is a huge shift in the confidence of the kids.

"They are now able to express themselves, not only as a performer or an artist but as a person, and to see them be bright and happy and enthusiastic about engaging with me is amazing.

"It's very satisfying to see that happening."

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