Calgary's Imajyn Cardinal earns Canadian Screen Award nomination for work in Little Bird

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Imajyn Cardinal filmed her major scenes for Little Bird back in 2022, but she still gets emotional when discussing her character’s backstory as an Indigenous teen who flees foster care after being taken from her birth family and community.

Shot in Manitoba, the drama focuses on an Indigenous woman’s search for identity and family after discovering she was a victim of the Sixties Scoop. Darla Contios plays the series’ protagonist, Esther Rosenblum/Bezhig Little Bird, who was adopted into a Jewish family in Montreal in 1968. Among the estranged family members she attempts to reconnect with is her pregnant 18-year-old sister Dora, played by Cardinal. The youngest of the Little Bird sisters, Dora was also taken from her family and placed in a strict foster home that she eventually left.

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“I almost get tears when I think about her,” says Cardinal, in an interview in Calgary. “She is so strong. She is strong and resilient. She’s a survivor. She’s a bit of a lone wolf, too, because of being separated and all the things she has been through. But she is unique, though, and she persevered and didn’t get lost in drinking or suppressing the pain.”

The six-part Crave and APTN series, which originally ran in May 2023, shines a light on the Sixties Scoop, a period from the early 1960s and into the 1980s when Indigenous children in Canada were removed from their families and put into the child welfare system or put up for adoption, usually without the consent of their families. It became a critically acclaimed hit and dominated this year’s nominations for Canadian Screen Awards. It received 19 nods in total, including one for Cardinal for best guest performance in a drama series.

Cardinal will not be attending the awards in Toronto. The winner of her category will be announced on May 29, during The Television Program and Performance Awards. However, not unlike her character, Cardinal is a new mom and has opted to stay home. The 24-year-old Cree-Dene actress gave birth to her first son in early April. She admits she was not expecting the award recognition. Cardinal appears in three episodes of the series, which was led by an Indigenous creative team that includes showrunner and creator Jennifer Podemski.

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“It’s not that it’s a small character, it’s a big character,” Cardinal says. “But (the scenes) went by so quick. When you watch the episode, it just goes by so quick.”

Podemski, a producer and actor who has starred in films such as Dance Me Outside and Empire of Dirt, put together an ensemble cast of Indigenous actors that includes Ellyn Jade, Osawa Muskwa, Joshua Odjick, Braeden Clarke, Eric Schweig and Calgarian Michelle Thrush. Thrush, an award-winning actress, is also Cardinal’s mother and occasional co-star.

Cardinal grew up on film and television sets. She may have visited her first set, in fact, while still in her mother’s womb. She began acting at the age of seven when she was cast in an educational video about sexual abuse. She had a recurring role in the TV drama Blackstone, which also starred Thrush. At 15, Cardinal booked her first starring role in Wiebke Von Carolsfeld’s coming-of-age film The Saver. She played Fern, a troubled teen determined not to end up in the foster care system that abused her mother. Much to Cardinal’s chagrin at the time, Thrush ended up being cast as her mother. In a 2011 feature article in Postmedia, she said she wasn’t particularly comfortable with her mom on set and also didn’t want people to think Thrush was helping her get work. Cardinal was actually cast long before her mother in The Saver. Among those who gave Cardinal a pep talk at the time was Elliott Page, who had starred (as Ellen Page) in Von Carolsfeld’s 2022 feature debut Marion Bridge.

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In Little Bird, Thrush plays Brigit, a community matriarch who is like an auntie to the protagonist and her sister. Cardinal laughs when reminded of her teenage objections to working with her mom. She has very little screen time with her mother in this series and says she would have liked to have worked with her more than she did.

“I call my mom all the time for everything now,” she says. “We spent so much time studying, just reading the script beforehand. But she wasn’t even there when I was filming. So it felt scarier. I was on my own. Not that she gives me that much advice. But it feels good to have her there.”

Cardinal wants to continue acting but is also interested in behind-the-scenes work. She is studying and has had a bit of experience as a camera operator. She currently works in programming at The Confluence, formerly Fort Calgary.

While the actress says she is occasionally frustrated by the type of roles available to her as an Indigenous actress, which she describes as often “sad stuff,” she realizes that educating Indigenous and non-Indigenous people about shameful periods in Canadian history such as the Sixties Scoop is important.

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“It was such a hard story to tell and it’s a story that hasn’t been told very much,” she says. “I haven’t had (any family) who were affected by the Sixties Scoop. But some people in our cast were a part of it. More people than you know have been affected by it. There is a lot of shame and not everybody is open to saying ‘I was adopted and raised away from my culture.’ (Actor Eric Schweig) was part of the Sixties Scoop. I’ve known him for a while and I didn’t know that. It just makes you feel for how people have had to find their own identities and how much of a privilege it is knowing where you come from.’

The Television Program and Performance Awards of the Canadian Screen Awards will be presented in Toronto on Wednesday, May 29. There will be four days of award shows live at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto starting Tuesday, May 28.

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