Past North of 60: Actor Tina Keeper on the character that launched her career
It was supposed to be a one-off. Actor Tina Keeper was hoping, in the very least, for a bit part on a new CBC drama. But life had a different plan. Her audition made a big impression and she landed the lead role — much to her surprise.
"This was beyond what I could ever imagine as an actress," said Keeper, who is Cree and a member of Norway House First Nation in Northern Manitoba.
Over 85 episodes and five movies, Keeper played Michelle Kenidi, a RCMP officer in the fictional community of Lynx River on North of 60. And with that role, Keeper became the first Indigenous person to lead a Canadian television drama. The critically acclaimed series was filmed in Bragg Creek, Alberta and also starred actors Tom Jackson and Gordon Tootoosis.
The last episode aired 20 years ago, on December 18, 1997.
"She was somebody quite familiar. My family were residential school survivors, and my family was from the North," Keeper explained. "I felt really confident about putting this character together. I had assistance from the Dene people and I also had my own life and family's history informing that character."
The character was also was very broken but had put herself back together and nothing was going to break her down, Keeper recalled. "She was one tough cookie."
She was also very beloved by viewers, said Keeper, who calls Kenidi the "Indigenous Anne Murray."
"That's how people respond to Michelle Kenidi. They love her. They trust her. She definitely was an archetype," Keeper said. "It was really fun to play, to be a part of that project at that time."
Playing Michelle ultimately taught Keeper about her own ability to be strong too. "She really represented that generation that came forward with resilience to make change. However these colonial structures impacted our day-to-day lives and our personal lives, they were not going to destroy us," Keeper said.
"That was definitely part of Michelle and it's part of who I, as an Indigenous person, am. [She] is really a blessing in my life. It really informs my life as well."
After North of 60, Keeper briefly dipped her toes into politics. From 2006 to 2008, she was the Liberal member of parliament for Churchill and served as official opposition's critic for public health and Canadian heritage.
In 2017, ACTRA named her the National Woman of the Year for her "artistic and advocacy achievements." Today, Keeper works as an actor, producer, filmmaker and documentarian.