Lorne Cardinal is a happy man. The 40-year-old member of the Sucker Creek First Nation has a steady acting job in the most popular situation comedy in Canadian television history.
Cardinal plays Davis Quinton, the police chief of the fictional town of Dog River. It's the home community of Corner Gas, seen on CTV and The Comedy Network.
When producer David Storey started the casting process for Corner Gas, he asked Cardinal to audition for the role of the community's top cop. Usually casting directors follow a simple, unstated rule. Unless the script calls for someone who isn't white and male, a white male actor will get the part. For Corner Gas, the casting was color-blind, Cardinal said.
"It didn't matter who was trying out. It was up to Brent and an executive from CTV to make the final decision. I'm just playing a cop and there's no big emphasis on my heritage. You don't hear the flute or the eagle scream when I come onto the screen," he said. "That time has come and gone."
It doesn't mean that Aboriginal people shouldn't be proud of who they are or where they come from, Cardinal said. It means that Aboriginal people in the arts shouldn't be restricted to playing roles written just for Aboriginal people.
That was the message he brought to Gathering Our Artists in Saskatoon in May. Gathering Our Artists was presented by the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, and introduced many Aboriginal young people interested in show business to the cream of the current crop of Canada's Aboriginal theatre community.
"There was David Starlight and Gordon Tootoosis, Tantoo Cardinal and Tomson Highway, Maria Campbell ... I was so honored to be included with those people," Cardinal said.
"We did two workshops for the kids, people who are just coming into theatre. We answered some questions and shared some experiences. We want kids to know that there's a huge potential if they make the theatre a career choice, not just in front of the camera but also behind it."
Cardinal took the scenic route to his acting career. Cardinal's parents moved throughout the West with him in tow when he was a child. In the mid-1980s, he was a seasonal worker in Kamloops, looking to do something else with his life.
"I was a tree planter ... at the end of one tree-planting season there was no great need. My other job was a darkroom technician. With a 17 per cent unemployment rate, Kamloops didn't need another one of those."
So he enrolled at Cariboo College in the faculty of education, hoping to become a teacher. A year later, he transferred to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. But Cardinal became disillusioned with the experience.
"I didn't agree with how the system works kids into trade craft on the basis of their marks. I was one of those kids that they wanted to stream. They wanted to put me into welding because my marks weren't great when I was in high school," he said.
"I didn't know what I wanted to be, but I knew I didn't want to be a welder."
While at Cariboo College, he enrolled in an acting class to score an easy credit. Instead, he grew less interested in teaching and more interested in acting. When he transferred to the U of A, he switched majors, first to history and then to theatre. He graduated in 1993.
When Cardinal graduated, he was in Toronto, already at work. He was a spear-carrier in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night. Appropriate enough for a Shakespeare fan.
"I love the language and the rhythm and the challenge of doing it. And the writing ... the words are so beautiful, the way he crafts them."
Cardinal has kept busy as an actor, both on stage and in the studio. He's worked with Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank in the thriller Insomnia. Cardinal also appears in Susan Sarandon's latest movie, Icebound, which has just been released on DVD.
But right now, he's very happy to be the police chief on Corner Gas. In the last television season, the half-hou show was attracting a million Canadian viewers. The show is more popular than any other Canadian-made show on Canadian television, except for Canadian Idol.
Getting stopped on the street by fans rarely happened when Cardinal was on other Canadian TV shows, and he credits his new-found fame to the writers of Corner Gas and CTV's promotional campaign.
"The big difference is that we have a network behind [us]. Global [never did] that for Blackfly and Jake and the Kid (two other television series in which Cardinal appeared)," he said. "They never promoted the show. CTV has gone out of the way to promote Corner Gas, and it shows."
The show is filmed at the Canada-Saskatchewan Production Studios in Regina and on a set in Rouleau, a village outside of Regina. Cardinal is proud of that fact as well.
"It's great that there's an opportunity now to create stories in the West. Not every television show has to be about a doctor or lawyer in Toronto."