Made-in-Manitoba series examines painful history of flawed government program
(WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) May 25, 2023 — Made-in-Manitoba series examines painful history of flawed government program

Little Bird is no small feat.

Not only because it took seven years to get from concept to release, or because filming for the six-part television series was plagued by floods, ice storms, insect infestations and pandemic delays.
Little Bird is a groundbreaking accomplishment for the story it tells.

The made-in-Manitoba miniseries – which debuts on Crave and APTN Lumi today – stars Winnipeg’s Darla Contois as Bezhig Little Bird, a young Indigenous woman searching for her birth parents after being adopted into a Jewish family in Montreal as a child during the ’60s Scoop.

It’s a fictional vessel for sharing true Canadian history with a global audience.

For Contois, the fact that Crave, a major streaming service, has thrown its support behind the show indicates a cultural shift in the era of truth and reconciliation.

“I think it means that people are ready to listen in a different way than they have before. And hopefully, they are ready for it,” she said during Little Bird’s Winnipeg première earlier this week.

Toronto-born showrunner Jennifer Podemski (also an actor who has appeared in Tin Star, The Rez, Riverdale and more) sees the partnership as a new era for Indigenous-led Canadian productions.
“(Crave is) setting the tone for prestige-level drama. They’re setting the tone for a level of storytelling that Indigenous people can achieve,” she said.

On Tuesday, hundreds of cast members, crew and supporters gathered for a red carpet event at the Metropolitan Event Centre in downtown Winnipeg. It was an evening of celebration and reflection.
“This is my letting-go ceremony,” said Podemski, who created the show with award-winning Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch (Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes). “This offering is a gift to the world and I’m just very relieved to be here celebrating with everybody that made it – that was so important to us.”

Little Bird was shot entirely in Manitoba with a local production crew, which Podemski described as a “force of nature.”

Locations in Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, Winnipeg, Brandon and Selkirk served as stand-ins for the show’s Saskatchewan and Montreal settings. During filming last spring, the crew had to contend with wild weather, a voracious tick season and pandemic delays.

While Contois felt at home in the role of Bezhig, being on set was a new experience for the Cree-Salteaux playwright originally from Misipawistik Cree Nation, who has spent much of her career in the theatre world. The early days of filming for her first major TV role were full of nerves.

“But transitioning from the theatre, I felt like it gave me a really good solid base,” she says, adding that she took a crash course in Hebrew and Judaism to prepare for the role. “So much of it is based around being present and listening, and using those skills really helped me, I think, thrive in film.”

In the first episode of Little Bird, viewers are introduced to Contois as Esther Rosenblum, a 20-something Montreal law student preparing to marry a well-to-do Jewish med school resident. The engagement party is interrupted by flashbacks to Long Pine Reserve in Saskatchewan, where Esther was born as Bezhig and where she was taken from her family at five years old by social workers with the government’s AIM (Adopt Indian and Métis) program.

The stunning cinematic scenes are hard to watch.

At Tuesday’s première, the filmmakers prepared the audience for the difficult subject matter. Elder Geraldine (Gramma) Shingoose opened the screening with a prayer of “love and comfort,” while mental-health support and traditional medicine was also made available.

“The love in this room is real. It was the thing that helped us survive through some very difficult storytelling and very traumatizing content,” Podemski said during her remarks.

While the story of the Little Bird family is fictional, it’s based on the real experiences and expertise of ’60s Scoop survivors and researchers who acted as advisers to the show.

The script was an education for Lisa Edelstein (House, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce), who plays Bezhig’s adoptive mother and Holocaust survivor Golda Rosenblum. Prior to filming Little Bird, she was unaware of the systemic separation of Indigenous families by the Canadian child-welfare system through the 1960s to ’80s.

“When I read this (script), it was a really profound experience. I cried so hard,” said Edelstein, who lives in Los Angeles.

As Golda, she tried to capture the complicated experience of a mother who thought she was doing the right thing despite being complicit in a destructive system.

“Like anybody, she was resistant to hearing that at first. I think that’s a journey a lot of people have to go on in order to receive the truth about the past,” she says over the phone while en route to the show’s Toronto première.

Edelstein believes Little Bird is arriving at a pivotal moment in popular culture, when misinformation and historical revisionism is rampant.

“As storytellers it’s extremely important that we fight back and continue to put stories like this out for the public to see in a way that is digestible,” she said.

“Sometimes entertainment can serve a deeper purpose.”

For Contois, working with experienced mentors such as Edelstein (who described the show’s star as “a wonderful lead and a wonderful leader”) and Podemski was a highlight of the experience.

“Honestly, I just felt like a little kid. Like I was learning and hanging out with my aunties and my uncles – I felt very well supported, very well taken care of,” she said.

At the local première, Contois was equal parts poised and awestruck.

“Oh my god, I can’t even tell you what it was like to sit there and know that everybody was watching my face,” she said with a laugh during a panel discussion after the screening.

“My face has never been that big.”
Twitter: @evawasney

CBC Winnipeg