TORONTO — With more than 100 film and TV projects to her credit, Tantoo Cardinal has established herself as one of Canada’s most prolific actors, balancing a 40-year career with work as an ardent activist for indigenous peoples and culture.
Cardinal will be celebrated with a special honour at the Canadian Screen Awards on Sunday, the latest in a steady stream of accolades that have been showered upon the Alberta-born actress.
Yet despite being heralded as a pioneering figure in Canada’s arts community, the 66-year-old Order of Canada member seems reluctant to bask in the recognition.
“It’s a long body of work, but it’s not a thick body of work, you know?” Cardinal said in a recent phone interview. “There are many other performers who have lead roles in movies and series and just get tons of work.
“The work I have done, for me, it seems like it’s kind of sprinkled that it’s being recognized in this manner is kind of astounding in a way.”
Tina Keeper (North of 60) will present Cardinal with the Earle Grey Award, which honours an actor whose work on Canadian TV has had an impact on the industry at home and abroad.
The Fort McMurray, Alta.-born Cardinal has appeared consistently in projects on both sides of the border. Her TV credits include the westerns Frontier and Longmire, ’90s drama Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, her Gemini-winning turn on the homegrown drama North of 60, and roles on other Canadian series Blackstone, Mohawk Girls and Arctic Air.
She has also been featured in historical epics including Legends of the Fall, Dances With Wolves and Black Robe, and received a Genie nomination for her performance in the 1987 drama Loyalties.
Cardinal said it has been challenging to have the stories of indigenous peoples “told in a proper light,” which she has tried to accomplish through the roles she selects and portrays onscreen.
“I’m not a writer, I’m not a director, I’m not a producer — I’m just an actor,” said Cardinal.
“It’s a part of my raison d’etre to be able to tell our side of the story in whatever way is available to me. But yet at the same time, it’s really important for our people to be seen as human beings, because we all come from that place.”
Cardinal said she has been encouraged by the evolution she’s seen in terms of attention to the plight of indigenous peoples. One such project she cites is the 2015 documentary The Pass System. Cardinal narrates the film, which explores Canada’s history of racial segregation, and how indigenous peoples were often denied freedom to leave their reserves without a pass.
She also praised the late CBC broadcaster Peter Gzowski, who died in 2002, and his radio program Morningside for providing a much-needed platform.
“He just gave me so much hope that we’re going to be seen, we’re going to be understood, and I think a lot of work has gone on from the work that he’s done,” she said. “I think he’s opened a lot of people’s hearts as to who we are.”
While she continues to add to her triple-digit screen credits, Cardinal also expressed a desire to seize the creative reins in pursuing additional projects.
“I want to do some writing and some of these other stories that need to be told. But at the same time you gotta keep acting because you’ve got to pay the rent.”