Indigenous storytellers making their mark in Canadian drama and comedy

​Left to Right: Brandon Oakes, Richard Van Camp, Anna Lambe, Joel Oulette, Sage Paul, Vance Banzo, Devery Jacobs, Tracey Deer, Craig Lauzon, Meegwun Fairbrother, Tamara Podemski. Illustrator: Ippiksaut Friesen

In June, we celebrate National Indigenous History Month to honour the history, heritage and diversity of Inuit, First Nations and Metis peoples in Canada. June 21st is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It’s a traditional time for Indigenous Peoples, and is also recognized as National Indigenous Peoples Day.

In honour of these events, CBC Television is celebrating the diversity of Indigenous storytellers, artists, and actors on CBC Gem.

Canadian Indigenous storytellers have been bringing their experiences to the screen since the 1970’s, beginning with acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. In 1999, APTN launched as the first national network, the first Indigenous dramatic feature film, Backroads, was shown at Sundance in 2000, and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, six Genie awards, and is still considered one of the best Canadian films of all time.

In the past decade or so there’s been even more appetite for stories from Indigenous directors and scriptwriters.

CBC Gem proudly includes the work of Indigenous creators, who are behind the cameras and performing in front of them. These are 11 storytellers involved in CBC Gem TV shows or films that reflect their unique heritage and outstanding contributions.

Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs

Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) actress
An illustration of Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs

We're still here to tell our stories, share our culture and our language and preserve that. I think it would be a disservice to the film industry to not have our stories be told.

Hooked on VHS tapes when she was a kid, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs has always been in love with film. She started doing community theatre in her community of Kahnawake, and eventually starred in her first role as a munchkin at the age of seven in the Turtle Island Theatre Company’s production of The Wizard of Oz. Her mother saw her love for performing, and sent out her name to a talent agency in Montreal when she was 10 years old — but didn’t tell her at first to spare her feelings in case she was rejected.​

“But I was accepted into it,” says Jacobs, “and she asked: ‘Is this something you want to do?’. Undoubtedly, I was like, ‘Yes!’”

As a teen she started doing roles sporadically, and at one point thought she wouldn’t be able to make a career out of it, so decided to go with her second passion of helping Indigenous people.

Devery started studying correctional intervention at John Abbott College with the goal of becoming a social worker. She was working at the Native Women’s Shelter in Montreal and almost gave up acting, until she landed the lead role in the film Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which garnered her a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Actress.

Since then, she’s gone on to star in multiple shows and movies, including This Life, Mohawk Girls, American Gods, and most recently, Blood Quantum.

Sage Paul

Fashion Designer
An illustration of Fashion Designer Sage Paul

Sage Paul has a lot to be proud of. An award-winning artist and designer, Paul is the artistic director and one of the founders of Indigenous Fashion Week in Toronto, bringing in Indigenous artists from across Canada and the world for a festival of hand-made Indigenous fashion, live runway showcases, marketplace exhibitors, an art exhibition, hands-on workshops and panel series.

Paul has designed costumes for people like Kent Monkman and Darlene Naponse, and her art has been shown in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s First Thursday and at Harbourfront Centre. Along with this, the Denesuline designer lends her talents to design amazing costumes for film and television, including Falls Around Her, Women Dress, and CBC’s Utopia Falls.

I believe that the culture is like part of the physical land that we stand on, and that's what really motivates me to get my ideas for what I'm going to create.

For CBC’s Utopia Falls, she designed three gowns for the character Petra, and wanted to be part of the show for “many reasons.”

“In Utopia Falls, we’re able to watch these young people discover what it is like to have culture, to bring colour into the world and be unique and individual to where we come from and where our ancestry comes from – that’s so important to me,” says Paul.

A big part that interested her in the job was the hip-hop culture and how she related that to her own personal life and the prominence of it in the Indigenous community.

“I hope people are able to watch the show and see the importance of culture, see the importance of land, and hopefully are able to really look beyond what is immediately in front of them and know what exists in real life.”

Joel Oulette

An illustration of Actor Joel Oulette

18-year-old Joel Oulette is a newcomer to the film and television industry, but he is already showing promise. Oulette is set to star as Jared in the upcoming CBC television drama series Trickster, based on Haida author Eden Robinson’s best-selling novel Son of a Trickster.

From Edmonton, Alberta, the Métis actor started working as an extra on projects when he was younger, and eventually started to do more speaking roles and going to film camps in order to follow in his big sister Shayla Stonechild‘s footsteps.

“Whatever she does I just fall into the same wave that she goes into… and she helped me out along the way,” says Oulette.

So for Oulette to land the leading role in a new series, it was a little overwhelming for him at first but eventually grew into it with ease.

Being native is cool.

“As time went on I got more comfortable with it, and with all the actors’ feedback, them helping me through it all, it helped me out. By the end of it I was really comfortable doing it.”

And if there’s one thing he wants to show in this series, it’s how “being native is cool.”

“I feel like with this TV show it’s going to have a lot of people more in tuned with how misjudged Native people are and how much they can look up to how they live.”

Amongst this series, Oulette is set to appear in Monkey Beach alongside Adam Beach later this year along with the TV series Tribal.

Anna Lambe

Actress, Activist, Student
An illustration of Actress, Activist, Student Anna Lambe

It's really a good feeling to be young Indigenous people on the screen where we don't see ourselves represented a lot of the time.

Anna Lambe is an actress, activist, and a student currently living and studying at the University of Ottawa. Her role in The Grizzlies earned her a Canadian Screen Award nomination, but before any of this, she says she was never really interested in acting until a performing arts workshop hosted by producers of the film came to her hometown of Iqaluit. It was her drama teacher who encouraged her to try out.

After a whole week of doing the workshop, Anna became invested and made it her goal to be part of The Grizzlies. Once she was cast and started working on the film, it started helping her in other ways.

Anna held a lot of “internalized racism” for her people and her heritage after constantly seeing negative depictions in the media. She calls it “a really pivotal moment in my life” and one she is “incredibly grateful for.”

“Everyday that I was on set, everyday that I was learning about the Grizzlies, learning about my own family history, learning about the territory history, that I got a better understanding of who I was, of who Inuit were, of who Indigenous people all across Turtle Island were.”

Next for Anna is her starring in CBC’s upcoming edgy series, Trickster, something she calls “a surreal experience” that solidified her love for acting.

“We had an indigenous person in every department of the show,” says Lambe. “It was like being surrounded by your cousins, being surrounded by aunties and uncles, it was a community above all things.”

But what she’s most excited for is her parents to see the show, and for how Indigenous youth will take it in.

Craig Lauzon

Actor, Writer, Comedian
An illustration of Actor, Writer, Comedian Craig Lauzon

Being up on stage... it was an interesting rush for me that I'd never felt before.

Many people may know Craig Lauzon for his comedic impressions of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper, but the Ojibwe writer, comedian, and actor will be taking on a new role soon in Trickster as the lead character’s father.

Originally from Ottawa, Lauzon moved to Toronto to become an actor and worked at Native Earth Performing Arts while also doing sketch comedy with friends.

His first appearance in the Canadian comedy series the Royal Canadian Air Farce came in 2002, eventually becoming a regular in 2004 — a process he says, was “the longest audition process I’ve ever had.”

“They just had me back every couple weeks and it was almost a year before they hired me on.”

He stayed in the comedy troupe until its final episode last year, bringing a 17-year-long journey to an end.

Throughout the years he’s starred on-screen in shows like Murdoch Mysteries and The Ron James Show, and he’s also performed on stage starring in a production of Thunderstick by Kenneth T. Williams. He was also an artistic associate at Native Earth Performing Arts.

This fall, Craig will be starring alongside newcomer Joel Oulette in the CBC series Trickster based on Eden Robinson’s best-selling novel Son of a Trickster.

Tracey Deer

Producer, Writer, Director
An illustration of Producer, Writer, Director Tracey Deer

I felt very voiceless as a teenager, but I've been able to have quite a voice now.

Tracey Deer is a Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk) producer, writer, and director, who has always had a love for creating. She was born and raised in the community of Kahnawake and grew up close with her community. When she was 12, Tracey started getting into films and would write scripts and have the kids in her community be the actors, saying they would rehearse scenes until she was able to save up her allowance to rent a video camera to film their masterpiece.

She says her childhood was “idyllic” until the Oka Crisis happened and was “really the bursting of the bubble.”

But what she says helped her out a lot during her teen years was watching movies. For her, watching characters go through joy, sadness, and anger also allowed her to feel “emotional freedom,” which is where her love for film became apparent. The films she watched would also inspire her to constantly change what she wanted to do, until she realized if she were to make movies and tell stories she’d get to experience different places and things.

Tracey went on to write and direct her own films, including the documentary Mohawk Girls, Kanien’keha:ka: Living the Language, and Club Native. Mohawk Girls was also adapted into a successful comedy series streaming on CBC Gem.

Vance Banzo

Comedian, member of the TallBoyz
An illustration of Comedian, member of the TallBoyz Vance Banzo

Vance Banzo’s love for entertainment began in high school. A member of Fishing Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, but raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Vance says it was his high school drama class that got him interested in acting, then eventually doing standup comedy. For Vance, doing improv in drama class helped him with his self-esteem and confidence.

I thought 'why not chase that?' It makes me feel good and it's something that I'm good at, so that's why I pursued it.

He then moved to Toronto to attend Humber College School of Comedy, meeting his best friend and fellow student Tim Blair. It was in Toronto’s comedy scene where he met Guled Abdi and Franco Nguyen. They would soon become the comedy troupe Tallboyz II Men, who got their name via another comedian’s suggestion because of their height.

Since 2016, the guys have gone on to be nothing but successful. They won Outstanding Comedy Short at the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival in 2018, Best Newcomer at the 2017 Montreal Sketchfest and Best Comedy at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Vance and the Tallboyz got the greenlight last year to star in their own half-hour comedy show on CBC with Kids in the Hall producer Bruce McCulloch, who said he was “blown away by how funny, fierce and modern they are,” in a March 2019 press release.

Vance has also appeared in Indian Horse and The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw.

TallBoyz challenge pedestrians in a game of 'I Know Canada!'

Richard Van Camp

An illustration of Author Richard Van Camp

I'm so proud of what we've created together… I'm in awe. It's exactly how a novel should be adapted to the big screen.

Tlicho writer Richard Van Camp has an incredibly accomplished career. A proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, he has written more than 20 books across multiple genres, including children’s books, fiction, graphic novels and short stories. Throughout his career he’s also taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia and the Emily Carr institute where he was a creative writing and storytelling instructor. But what launched it all was his first novel The Lesser Blessed.

When it launched, it became a best-seller and eventually led to him receiving an email from filmmaker and director Anita Doron, asking him if she could adapt the book to a feature film. The process to create the film would be a challenging one, though. They wanted to film in the North because it was a Northern story, were confronted with the budgetary setbacks. After years of setbacks, it was looking like it wasn’t going to be made.

On a whim, Doron emailed the script to actor Benjamin Bratt asking if he would be interested in being part of the film to help it get made, which he was.

Seven years later in 2012, it was finally made and released at the Toronto International Film Festival. You can watch The Lesser Blessed for free on CBC Gem.

Through it all, Van Camp says he wouldn’t change a thing.

Meegwun Fairbrother

An illustration of Actor Meegwun Fairbrother

I need to tell stories, I need to express, I need to sing, I need to dance, I need to move, I need to act.

Meegwun Fairbrother is a Toronto-born Ojibway/Scottish actor. But he wasn’t raised in the big city.

When he was a child, his mother really wanted him to be raised with his heritage and transitioned from being a social worker to a teacher working in First Nation communities in northern Ontario, many of them fly-in reserves and communities including Webequie First Nation, Big Trout Lake First Nation, and Pic Mobert First Nation to name a few.

He was attending high school in Kenora, Ontario when he got the bug for acting.

“My love of movies and love of stories and the worlds we create when we come together and we share something around the fire or in the movie theatre, that shared experience was really powerful for me,” said Meegwun.

After high school he moved to Toronto and graduated from York University’s Acting Conservatory.

“I’ve always just wanted to tell stories. I think that’s the main thing, I need to tell stories, I need to express, I need to sing, I need to dance, I need to move, I need to act.”

Meegwun has gone to star on screen in shows CBC’s Burden of Truth, Mohawk Girls, and Hemlock Grove. He’s also a stage actor, performing a one-man show last year called Isitwendam (An Understanding) at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto.

Brandon Oakes

Actor, Dancer
An illustration of Actor, Dancer Brandon Oakes

As a Native actor who looks like me, I've always had roles of chief or the warrior, the drug dealer, whatever, but never had a lawyer role. Never saw one come across my table. And once I saw it, I was like "Finally!"

Brandon Oakes is a Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk) actor from Akwesasne, which straddles the Ontario-Quebec-New York border, with a career spanning over 15 years. But before becoming a screen actor, Oakes started performing as a dancer and stage actor travelling across North America.

He started with the Kanata Native Dance Theatre company, then eventually auditioned and was hired by Red Thunder Dance Theatre. This started him on a path that eventually led him to take over the role in Spirit - The Seventh Fire, which toured the United States for eight months.

For Oakes, it’s his role as family lawyer Doug Paul on CBC’s Diggstown that really made him excited.

“It was super exciting because I finally got to call my mother and say that I’m a lawyer.”

Oakes has gone on to star in many feature films and television series, including Through Black Spruce, which garnered him a Canadian Screen Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Anne with an E, Diggstown, and most recently, Blood Quantum.

Tamara Podemski

Artist, Actress
An illustration of Artist, Actress Tamara Podemski

The Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi artist Tamara Podemski’s work has spanned many media, including film, television, and Broadway. Born and raised in Toronto, Podemski is the middle sister of three, each of which are performers.

Though her parents are not artists or performers, they loved art and supported and encouraged Tamara and her sisters all the time, letting them create their own movie tickets at home and put on performances. But for Podemski, it was her grandmother who helped expose her to the arts in a big way.

She took us to the ballet, she took us to musicals, she took us to the orchestra, she kind of opened up our world to performance.

After that, everything was a performance for her. It was a way for her to process emotions after her mother left and she was raised by her father, using dance and theatre to help her through that hardship in her life. It was also when she started going to school at the Claude Watson School of Performing Arts, where she studied theatre, dance and music for 10 years.

Tamara has a lot of projects and accomplishments under her belt, including performing as a member of the original Canadian cast of Rent and her biggest mark, Four Sheets to the Wind, which won her the Special Jury Prize for Acting at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Her most recent projects include CBC’s Coroner and HBO’s Run.


Profiles written by Jasmine Kabatay

Jasmine Kabatay is an Anishinaabe freelance journalist from Seine River First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She is based in Toronto and has written for the Toronto Star, VICE News, and CBC.

Artist: Ippiksaut Friesen

Ippiksaut Friesen is an Inuk from Nunavut. She is a graduate at Emily Carr University with a degree in multimedia with a major in animation. She is also an illustrator and puppeteer in various children’s programming. She attended the Earthline Indigenous Tattoo School Residency program in 2017 where she was taught traditional stick n poke and skin stitch tattooing. Her main focus on tattooing is traditional/modern Inuit and Indigenous tattoos for Indigenous people.