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Squamish's Lorne Cardinal reflects on the need for meaningful representation

On the cusp of receiving an award at the Whistler Film Festival, Cardinal speaks about diversity and the importance of telling the story of residential schools.
Editor’s note: This story deals with Indian Residential Schools and may be triggering for some readers. Please take good care. Help for those suffering is available through the Indian Residential School Survivors Society: call toll-free 1 (800) 721-0066 or reach the 24-hour Crisis Line 1 (866) 925-4419.
 

Squamish’s Lorne Cardinal is being honoured at the 21st annual Whistler Film Festival, which is on now.

“It was quite a surprise. It was nice,” said Cardinal, who, though in the middle of a whirlwind of work that has taken him out of town for stretches, was at home in Squamish when reached by phone on Wednesday. 

The Vanguard Award recognizes a member of the film and TV industry who has made a profound impact through their body of work. 

“It is always nice being recognized by peers and the industry,” Cardinal said, adding though he has received plenty of accolades in the past, it never gets old. 

(In the new year, Theatre Network’s Roxy Theatre in Edmonton will be officially naming its 80-seat theatre The Lorne Cardinal Theatre.)

Cardinal also stars in this year’s WFF entry and Borsos Competition nominee Run Woman Run, which has its BC premier at the festival. 

In the heartfelt “dramady,” Cardinal plays Len, the father of the main character Beck (played by Dakota Ray Hebert), a single mother in a funk who is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. 

“I am kind of the voice that keeps pressuring her to do things right,” Cardinal said. “But he starts off as an enabler at the top, always making excuses for her and that kind of stuff. But then he has no choice but to put the hammer down at some point.” 

Beck is encouraged to get healthy by the ghost of real-life long-distance runner Tom Longboat, who in 1907, was the first First Nations athlete to win the Boston Marathon.

Run Woman Run is written and directed by Zoe Leigh Hopkins, who is Heiltsuk and Mohawk and originally from Bella Bella.

Meaningful representation

Indigenous-led productions like this are something Cardinal has always championed.

In 2016, with his spouse, Monique Hurteau, and their production company  Through and Thru Films, Cardinal produced, wrote and directed Chasing Lear, a documentary film capturing the all-Indigenous theatre production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

With the recent heightened awareness of inclusion — or the lack thereof — is the entertainment more inclusive than it was? 

According to Cardinal, it depends. 

He said looking at the nominees of the 2021 Gotham Independent Film Awards demonstrates there is more of an awareness of the many talented Indigenous performers, such as Michael Greyeyes, who was nominated for both his role in Wild Indian and Rutherford Falls.

“There’s an awareness going on and an effort by the industry to be inclusive, but it is a slow-moving process,” he said. “It is one thing to be included; it is another thing to be included as motivating forces as leads in films and series — that kind of thing.” 

Cardinal said, currently, sometimes a production will have a character who is Indigenous, or BIPOC or Two-Spirited, “but really, there is no point to it except that it looks good on the score sheet when you are applying for grants,” he said. “But when you look under the covers and see these characters aren’t driving the story, it can be anybody, then what is the point?” 

“If we aren’t driving the story, we are just background colour, like we have always been,” he said.

Cardinal had high praise for the Crown corporation Telefilm Canada, however. 

“They are great to work with. They reach out and actually help people. They aren’t just a bureaucracy. They are good partners to have in your corner. They will help guide you,” he said. 

“I recommend anybody who has projects in the system, to reach out to Telefilm.”

Recent work

While many fans know him best as Sgt. Davis Quinton in Corner Gas and Corner Gas Animated (TV Series), Cardinal has credits in hundreds of other shows and projects. 

Among many other things, Cardinal recently did a guest appearance on the U.S. sitcom Rutherford Falls, streaming on Peacock. 

“That was a very fun time, so they are going to have me back this season or next season,” he said. 

He is also working on Marie Clements' feature film Bones of Crows, whose main character survives residential school. 

And he is voicing an audiobook of The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir by Joseph Auguste (Augie) Merasty.

Learning and unlearning

The projects about residential schools are important to Cardinal, he said, because his mother, father, aunts and uncles were survivors of the institutions. 

Cardinal is Cree from Sucker Creek First Nation. 

His father was forced to attend St. Bruno’s/Joussard Residential School, which the Roman Catholic Church ran. 

“I have a whole family of people who survived that horrendous period in Canadian history,” he said.

He is also working with Hurteau on producing an audiobook of a book by lawyer and historian Bruce McIvor that tells some of the darker moments in the Nation’s history. 

“These kinds of books and stories, if people are open-minded enough to take a risk and learn something, they might unlearn some inherited preconceptions,” he said. 

His father, who raised Cardinal and his brother, only told a few stories about his experience in residential school while they were growing up. 

“How they were forced to polish floors on their hands and knees every Sunday, by hand. And being... strapped for speaking his language and being locked in closets without food for speaking his language,” Cardinal said. 

He was a brilliant man, who taught his boys “incredible things,” but he also struggled because of what happened to him.

“It was hard times, because he was self-medicating,” Cardinal said. 

When Cardinal’s father, Don, was 10 years old at residential school, he and a couple of other boys were tasked with tracking down runaways. 

“They knew where the kid was going; he was going home, maybe 15 or 20 miles away. So, they would let their kid have his visit at home... and then they would go knock on the door and say, ‘OK, you have to get back now,’” Cardinal said, acknowledging the trauma that must have been for his father to have to be one of those bringing kids back. 

“At the same time, do you do it or do you let the priest do it, and then they get beaten right away.” 

Cardinal said it wasn’t until his father was at the end of his life that he told his kids he had suffered sexual abuse at the school. 

“Once he did that, everything made sense — the way he brought us up and where the anger and rage and distrust made sense," he said. 

Cardinal doesn't  shy away from calling what happened to Indigenous children genocide. He said he thinks there are many who, though they hear the stories of residential school survivors from Elders, don’t connect that these abuses happened to very young and small children. 

“Aged five to 14 to had to endure this,” he said. “It was children that they tried to beat the Indian out of. You look at your kids now. You look at your kids in school in Grade 1. That is the age that they preyed upon,” he said. 

“I don’t think we should be shying away from the ugly parts of Canadian history. It will only make us stronger and bring us closer together to understand each other — have that human empathy.”

Cardinal will be featured in conversation on Dec. 8 at 5 p.m. PT and streamed on Whistler Film Festival’s interactive virtual platform.

He can be found on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and has an online store at  http://shop.lornecardinal.com.