In “Little Bird,” from Indigenous producer Jennifer Podemski, Darla Contois stars as a woman taken from her reserve at age five and adopted into a Montreal Jewish family.
(TORONTO STAR) May 25, 2023 – One morning, Patti and Morris Little Bird wake up with their four children. By the end of the day they have one child left, the other three having been shoved into a car and taken away, screaming for their mother.

Whether you’re a parent or somebody’s child, you might want to sit a minute and consider what that would feel like.

It’s what happens in the opening episode of “Little Bird” and also what happened to thousands of Indigenous families in Canada in what’s known as the Sixties Scoop. From 1951 to 1991, between 20,000 and 40,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children were removed from their communities, put in foster care or adopted into non-Indigenous households. The impact of those removals is still felt today and not just by families directly affected by them.

“Every Indigenous person in this country was affected by the Sixties Scoop or by residential schools. There is not one of us who hasn’t been affected,” said Darla Contois, the Cree-Saulteaux actor and playwright who portrays Bezhig Little Bird, a.k.a. Esther Rosenblum, in “Little Bird” and whose own father was part of the Scoop.

The series, which debuts on Crave and APTN Friday, is chiefly Bezhig’s story. Taken from her home on a reserve in Saskatchewan at age five and adopted by a Jewish family in Montreal, the character begins a frustrating search for her birth family in her 20s.

It’s a role that Contois, a mother herself, felt was meant for her when she first auditioned.
The Winnipeg resident was on the verge of quitting acting for a more stable job since she wasn’t getting a lot of parts. But her friend Devery Jacobs, the Mohawk actor who stars in “Reservation Dogs,” mentioned Contois to Toronto-born Jennifer Podemski, the co-creator of “Little Bird.”

“It was just like magic, it was literal magic,” Contois said over the phone.

“As an actor, they tell you, like, don’t get attached to any roles; you do the audition and then you forget about it, you let it go. And for some reason, I just could not let that feeling go of this role is meant for me.”

Part of what made the experience magic for Contois was working with “all these incredible Indigenous women storytellers,” including Podemski, who is part Jewish and part Ojibwe; director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, who is Blackfoot and Sámi, and director Zoe Hopkins, who is Heiltsuk and Mohawk.
For her part, Podemski, 49, wasn’t part of the Scoop — although she had a close call when she was briefly taken from her Ojibwe mother as a baby — but “the work that I have done in my career as a writer, producer, director has intersected with the story of the Sixties Scoop since the beginning,” she said in a phone interview.

“My first TV series that I did in my early 20s was called ‘The Seventh Generation’ and we were travelling across the country telling stories about Indigenous youth who were overcoming barriers and accomplishing incredible things against the odds. And many of those people were Sixties Scoop survivors.

“So I’ve been deeply invested in bringing that story to light.”

This is the first time, as far as Podemski knows, that the Scoop has been the subject of a drama series.
“Little Bird” is also one of the rare scripted TV shows with an Indigenous focus to make it onto a mainstream Canadian network or streaming service. It’s a co-production from Crave and specialty channel APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

For Podemski, that added only marginally to the usual pressure of making a TV series and hoping you did enough to get people to watch it.

With “Little Bird,” “our job was to elevate this to a premium or prestige sort of level of storytelling,” said Podemski, who’s also known as an actor for “Dance Me Outside,” “Moccasin Flats” and other series and movies. “What draws people to storytelling is when we see a character we relate to.”

Although Bezhig/Esther’s story is anchored in a specific experience, “there are many elements that are relatable to everybody about identity, about family, about who you are and where you come from,” she added.

Contois said Esther is in “this constant tug of war.”

“Her upbringing by her Jewish mother puts her in a complicated place of ‘I really want to respect my mom and respect the culture that I grew up in.’ But I feel just this longing for my origin.
“Learning about being taken by the government and being put into a family that she didn’t necessarily have to go to, it’s just really difficult for Esther.”

To get the nuances of the story right — which jumps between 1968 when Bezhig, her sister Dora and brother Niizh are taken, and 1985 when Esther leaves law school and her fiancé behind in Montreal to search for her birth family in Regina — Podemski and her team did tons of research.
“I think I can say that we are presenting something that is truly authentic from all perspectives,” Podemski said.

“We even spoke with the person who coined the term Sixties Scoop”: Patrick Johnson, who wrote a 1983 report on Indigenous children and the child welfare system. “We spoke to everybody. All sides.”
Obviously, there is an emotional weight to telling this kind of story — especially since the seizure of Indigenous children is an ongoing concern. According to a note at the end of each episode, “Today there are more Indigenous children in custody than ever before.”

“I personally worked through a lot of anger and some days (I felt) somewhat helpless because I wonder why I choose to do this work because it’s so painful,” Podemski said. “But I know that the outcome is so important, but also the process. As painful as it is, it creates so much conversation within my own family and allows us to reckon with our own historical trauma.”
Contois relied on the “auntie vibes” on set when things got tough, not just from Indigenous women but Jewish women like playwright Hannah Moscovitch, who co-created and co-wrote the show with Podemski.

“They’ll give you a smack upside the head if you need it or give you a hug if you need it. It was a very good support system,” Contois said.

Podemski particularly wants people to know that “Little Bird” was made with love by everyone involved.

“I hope that people will see that we have a beautiful family system and beautiful culture and beautiful things to celebrate about ourselves,” Contois added, speaking of Indigenous people. “And part of this story coming out is reclaiming that. We are such an incredibly resilient, strong group of people and we just want to move forward together.”
“Little Bird” debuts on Crave and APTN May 26 with new episodes on Fridays. On June 30, Crave and APTN lumi will stream a companion documentary about the Sixties Scoop, “Coming Home.”

Debra Yeo is a deputy editor and a contributor to the Star’s Culture section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo