Multi-talented artist, Jennifer Podemski, stands up as a role model and encourages others to live life with a message of unity.
By Jennifer Lee
Photography by Christopher Wahl
Fans know Jennifer Podemski as a multi-hyphenate—actress, writer and producer—recognized for Moccasin Flats, Degrassi: The Next Generation and the award-winning Empire of Dirt (a film that co-stars fellow WE are Canada: Future 50 honouree Cara Gee). To the Indigenous screen‐based industry in Canada, though, Jennifer—currently seen on Hard Rock Medical—boasts yet more hyphens: pioneer, role model and leader.
Her screen credits are the stuff of legend. With Moccasin Flats, the Toronto-born film and television veteran ushered in North America’s first drama created, written, produced and performed completely by Indigenous artists.
Anchoring the landmark show’s gritty depiction of Regina’s North Central neighbourhood, were the non-professional teen stars of the series. The storyline was inspired by their personal narratives. Behind them was Jennifer, leading creative workshops designed to “empower them to tell their own stories.”
Since her Moccasin Flats days, Jennifer has been a matriarch within Canada’s Indigenous arts community, nurturing young talent while breaking down industry walls to widen and diversify opportunity for its actors, writers and filmmakers. “It’s difficult to get in—to get on the platform,” she says of the Canadian entertainment scene. “I hope I’ve been able to provide that for them.”
Mentoring has become a way of life for the artist, who regularly brings speakers, performers and mentors to Indigenous communities across Canada, as part of her H.O.P.E (Helping Our People Excel) Tour. “Role modeling is huge,” she declares, describing it as a chance for individuals to “dream beyond their current circumstance.” For this mother of two, it’s all part of caring for family—a grouping that, to Jennifer, extends beyond shared DNA.
Choosing “to live by the rule that everyone has the right to be loved,” Jennifer’s compassion for her community is steadfast. Youth are a special focus. “Young people who live on reserves need to be reminded that they have the potential to do amazing things,” she asserts.
Canada is a family, too—a mosaic of people forming a community. Like all families, inner dynamics evolve over time, but as Jennifer notes, healthy evolution is dependent on reconciling the present with the past. “It’s like any health and wellness guru will tell you: you can’t just wake up one day and be happy and whole—you have to look back and look inside… reconcile your demons,” she explains. “That’s the microcosm of what we as a country have to do.”
It begins with ensuring every perspective is given equal weight, stresses Jennifer. “We need to work together. Rather than perpetuating the narrative as it is now, we need to look to our Indigenous history and start taking into account that part of the story in a more meaningful way.”
Read on to learn how Jennifer would like to see the national community strengthen the bond between all the people within it, in order to foster pride in unity for decades to come.
Why is “we” stronger than “me?”
Teamwork makes dream work. I definitely feel the momentum that teamwork generates, and I love that feeling of being a part of a collective spirit. One of my all-time favorite quotes is: “When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘WE,’ even illness becomes wellness.”
What is the kindest action you’ve been on the receiving end of, and what about the gesture touched you personally?
My husband shows me kindness every day. I have a difficult time walking due to Lyme disease, and he always makes sure the driveway is shoveled and a path is cleared for me. [In the winter,] he brushes off and starts my car and has my coffee waiting for me when I wake up. It sounds silly and minor, but these things just truly make my day and help me pay it forward.
Finish this sentence: Moving forward into the next 150 years, our country needs [blank] in order to build a more caring and compassionate Canada.
Reconciliation and partnership with Indigenous people.
A great leader in our community, Senator Murray Sinclair, says, when it comes to Truth and Reconciliation a lot of people are talking about reconciliation, but not a lot of people are talking about the truth. You can’t have the reconciliation without the truth. The truth will ultimately be our key to unity.
Describe the core values of your ideal Canada.
Celebrates the ancient Indigenous knowledge that is at our fingertips and utilizes it to build stronger communities and policies. Indigenous knowledge and practice is tried, tested and true—it has much to offer the world.
What small action have you taken in present day to help secure a brighter future for our country tomorrow?
Mentoring youth and investing in random acts of reconciliation. This is not exclusive to Indigenous people: When you come upon racism, speak out. If you have something to teach, speak up. When someone falls in front of you, pick them up. Be kind to one another.
As we work to make Canada a better country, what is one action you would like people to take?
Build unity, and I think true unity means getting rid of The Indian Act. It also means working together with our Indigenous brothers and sisters and our Indigenous forefathers to create a stronger brighter future.