By Sean Willett
Not everyone in Canada knows what it’s like to live on a reservation. Due to a lack of education on modern aboriginal issues and the unfortunate pervasiveness of negative stereotypes of First Nations peoples, most citizens are unaware of the internal strife and conflict present in some aboriginal communities. Blackstone, an Albertan television show created by Gil Cardinal and Ron E. Scott, hopes to address this by telling a story of corruption and community politics from a First Nations point of view.
Centred on the fictional First Nations community of Blackstone, the series chronicles citizens’ struggles dealing with problems such as a corrupt chief and a struggle for power. The episodes can be fairly graphic and uncompromising, and have a feel similar to HBO programs such as The Sopranos or The Wire.
Currently in its second season, the show’s cast features First Nations actors from across the country, including Calgarian Michelle Thrush, who won a 2011 Gemini Award for Best Actress for her performances with the series– the second aboriginal woman to receive the honour. Co-star Carmen Moore was also nominated for the same category. “This was huge,” explains Thrush, “to have two aboriginal women in one category, in our very first season.” The show also won the Award for Best Opening.
“I’ve been working in this industry for close to 25 years, and Blackstone has really changed the game for everything,” says Thrush. “It’s one of the most popular shows ever with native communities.”
Yet Blackstone was far from a guaranteed success when it first began, facing a limited budget and an uncertain future. “When we first began Blackstone we all did it from a place in our hearts,” remarks Thrush. “We went in and we weren’t being offered what we normally get as experienced actors.”
Since the series was not backed by a major network, the budget was too low to provide the cast with salaries that were the industry norm– but the actors were not deterred. “All of us took a very low rate, just because we really believed in the script,” Thrush says.
One of the biggest reasons for Blackstone’s success among aboriginal viewers has been its willingness to talk about issues often ignored by society at large. These are issues that affect many First Nations peoples, such as flaws in the child welfare system, the lack of adequate running water in reserves and corrupt local politics. “That’s what we’re looking at in Blackstone– the things that aren’t spoken about over coffee downtown,” Thrush laughs.
However, Thrush also takes care to emphasize how these problems are far from universal. “Our communities make up so many different types of human beings,” she explains, “and I don’t like laying things down and saying that this is how aboriginal life is.” She stresses that while some communities are faced with the issues present in Blackstone, they are by no means shared by all. “There are a lot of communities that are really getting through the B.S. that has been placed on them by history.”
Despite this, the show remains an invaluable tool in helping to do away with misconceptions surrounding aboriginal life. “There is so much ignorance out there,” says Thrush, “and that’s what I’ve had to deal with my whole life.” The way non-aboriginal viewers have reacted to Blackstone has been incredibly positive, she explains. “Non-native viewers are like, ‘Wow, I never realized that,’ or, ‘As a non-native person watching this show, I totally get things I didn’t understand before.’”
With its uncompromising look at aboriginal life and growing popularity, Blackstone is broadening perspectives by dispelling myths– and taking a step towards a better future for First Nations peoples. This is a future that Michelle Thrush hopes to see come about soon. “Things are changing. Our youth are growing up and there are so many powerful new things happening out there, and we really need to be able to find our place, to demand our place, in this society.”