June is National Indigenous History Month. It is a time for all Canadians — Indigenous, non-Indigenous and newcomers — to reflect upon and learn the history, sacrifices, cultures, contributions, and strength of First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. Throughout the month of June, we will profile Indigenous people, and share their stories and voices, so that we can celebrate the difference they have made in their communities and to our country.
June 19: Today, we celebrate Jennifer Podemski
Born and raised in Toronto, Jennifer Podemski is an award-winning film and television producer and actor of mixed Anishinaabe (First Nation) and Ashkenazi (Jewish) ancestry. Podemski started acting when she was a teen, majoring in dance at Claude Watson School for Performing Arts at Earl Haig Secondary School in North York. In Grade 11, she started working as background performer on various television series and films.
Her career took off when she earned a role as Pique in CBC’s The Diviners. Soon after, she got the starring role in Bruce McDonald’s Dance Me Outside. As her career continued forward, Podemski noticed the lack of Indigenous writers, producers and directors behind the camera.
We often hear about the moment when a person decides they need to change paths in their life. When asked what the moment was, Podemski explains: “There were many moments but the ultimate turning point was when I lived in New York with my sister Tamara who was doing Rent on Broadway. I was just so sick of the system and the industry and the way it made me feel and think, that they were in charge and not me.”
“Almost everything I did was Indigenous, but I rarely, if ever, worked with Indigenous writers, directors and producers. I decided that the only way it would end is if I started creating content and build with my Indigenous peers a space for our stories and perspectives to thrive through our own lens.”
Podemski said one of the accomplishments she is most proud of is the creation of her production company, Big Soul Productions, with her business partner Laura Milliken in 1999. She was 25 at the time and they were an Indigenous female-run company. Together, they created and produced documentary series, short films and the first all-Indigenous drama series, Moccasin Flats, which ran for three seasons on APTN and Showcase TV from 2002 to 2006.
In 2005, she branched out on her own and opened Redcloud Studios Inc. – a film and television production company dedicated exclusively to Indigenous content.
Her first feature film as producer was Empire of Dirt, which Podemski said is one of her greatest accomplishments. After eight years in the making, it premiered to rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014. The film was also nominated for five Canadian Screen Awards in 2015 and won best screenplay.
Podemski is passionate about “strengthening Indigenous visibility in the film and television industry, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.” Since her early 20s, Podemski has dedicated her time to training and mentoring Indigenous youth who want to work in the industry.
“I encourage anyone who has a story burning inside them that they have to share, or if they want to explore their community, their family or the world around them through their own lens, I encourage them to do it. Do it with your phone. We have access to technologies we didn’t have 30 years ago.”
Podemski has helped pave the way for future generations of Indigenous storytellers. She hopes that those who come after her won’t have to face the “systemic racism and white supremacy” that she had to deal with.
“I think many people think that those things have to be outwardly violent or explosive displays, but more often than not they are silent because they are inherently insidious and infectious.”
She encourages Indigenous youth to take every opportunity they are presented.
“We the older generations will benefit from the youth today who are working towards creating space, and raising and amplifying Indigenous voices so that our neighbours, our friends and our larger community can begin to recognize how essential our knowledge, our history and our existence is to building and creating a better, stronger, brighter future,” Podemski said.
For the past 13 years, Podemski has celebrated the national achievements of Indigenous people as the producer of Indspire Awards, which can be seen on CBC/APTN on National Indigenous Day on June 21. The Indspire Awards, which was held in early March, honours Indigenous people for their contributions to education, health, public service, and the performing arts.
Podemski’s most recent accolade was the Canadian Screen Award for best director in the factual category for her television series, Future History – a documentary series about “harnessing Indigenous knowledge and Indigenizing the future.” The show airs on CBC GEM, and season two premiers this month.
Click here to learn more about Podemski.