On Aboriginal Identity
Personally, I think all great original scripts are a thinly veiled disguise by an author of their very personal lives and/or worldview. You don’t write in a vacuum. In creating the character of Ray I was absolutely drawing on my own life experience. I was writing from my own fears of identity and how that relates to my child yet to be born with my non-Aboriginal wife. Here I am born from a white mother and an Aboriginal father, so what does that make my child? And if my father was so obviously Aboriginal from the place and way he grew up, to the work he has always done, to the community he is always around, how am I an Aboriginal person growing up as I did in an urban environment? How will my kid look to me—as I did to my Dad when I became more conscious of ethnicity—and see and identify his father as an Aboriginal person, see and identify him/herself as an Aboriginal person?
In regards to the character of Jolene, the task was similar with a different veneer. Here is a woman that is visually “more” Aboriginal—she exists as a working person within the Aboriginal community—but she doesn’t really know the fundamental aspects of her Aboriginal identity. Specifically, she doesn’t know how to engage in an Anishnabe practice of prayer. Her entire spiritual journey was motivated by a conversation with my sister, acclaimed Métis artist Christi Belcourt, when we just put our cards on the table and said to each other, “You know, I don’t know how to pray, I don’t know how to speak our language, I have to do something about this. Otherwise, who am I?” And as I talked with other Aboriginal people I found that this wasn’t some kind of abstract intellectualism, it was something so many urban Aboriginal people are feeling: how do I truly engage myself in my cultural worldview, how do I engage in spiritual practice?
So, I knew that Aboriginal identity would be the central theme of Tkaronto. I also knew that it had to be set in the urban environment.
When I was traveling around Canada last year shooting some biography videos for the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards I had the opportunity to meet some tremendous Aboriginal people, one of whom was Lewis Cardinal (Lorne Cardinal’s brother). Lewis’ work is about building up Aboriginal community in the urban environment, and he conveyed this one thought that stuck with me for months: “We as Aboriginal people have no cultural reflectivity in the urban environment…and this tells our people that we don’t belong here.” Here I am in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, replete with a Little Italy, Chinatown, Little India, Little Korea, Little Portugal, etc. But where is there a Little First Nations? A Little Metis-ville? They don’t exist.
And towards that end, when people see the title of the film, Tkaronto, they want to know how to say it; they want to know what it means. And to me it is the perfect reflectivity of what this film is about, that although we may struggle from time to time with our identities and cultural practices in an urban environment, Aboriginal people are indeed alive, well and existing in cities around the world, culturally intact.