Photography by Doug Bedard
Barrie, Ont., resident Jennifer Podemski uses her storytelling skills to give her ancestors a voice.
An actor, producer and director who has been making TV shows and movies since she was a preteen, Jennifer Podemski has a face you don't forget—though she didn't always think that was a good thing.
"My mixed heritage could never be ignored," says the native Torontonian. "I stood out everywhere; I looked different [from both sides of my family]. There were times I wished I looked 'normal' and could blend in, especially when I was younger. But it was something I couldn't run away from."
Part Saulteaux First Nation and part Polish, Podemski's unique looks eventually became one of the things that set her apart from other aspiring actors—and later, her dual heritage would lead to some of her most meaningful work.
She started acting at 12, when she took what was supposed to be a one-time gig cohosting Wonderstruck, CBC's kids' science show. She'd barely finished filming when she decided that was what she wanted to do with her life. But the movie business wouldn't just be a career. It would also be a means of accepting herself. "Ironically, I only got comfortable in my own skin when I started working professionally," she says. "I recognized that I had to embrace everything about myself, regardless of how ashamed or out of place I felt."
Her big break came at 20, when she was cast in Bruce McDonald's 1994 film, Dance Me Outside. Soon, she was appearing in The Rez, a TV spinoff of the movie, and taking high-profile roles in Cancon hits such as Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz and Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P., in which she played Benicio Del Toro's love interest. And all the while, she was running the first all-Indigenous production company with her friend Laura Milliken. Whether producing or acting, she quickly parlayed her success into projects that spoke to her own family history.
On her mother's side, Podemski's Saulteaux lineage can be traced back some 20,000 years. Her father's Polish Ashkenazi family hasn't been here quite as long—her paternal grandfather came to Canada after the Second World War, when he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen—but it's contributed just as much inspiration. He and his brother are the sole members of their family to survive the Holocaust. His story was the subject of Podemski's directorial debut for CBC; she and her cousins returned to the site where his mother perished in Germany, filming the journey for a short documentary. "I always had a sense I was here to be a storyteller and to share my ancestors' legacies. In terms of content, I don't discriminate," she says.
She also works to tell stories inspired by her mother's side of the family, and the experience of First Nations Canadians like her grandparents, who spent their childhoods in residential schools. Her production company, Redcloud Studios, is dedicated to strengthening Indigenous visibility, producing shows that centre the First Nations experience, such as Rabbit Fall and Moccasin Flats. She also helped spearhead the Indspire Awards, a platform that acknowledges Indigenous success stories. "I've always been very drawn and moved to tell Indigenous stories—especially because there's an extreme void of those perspectives on television and elsewhere," says Podemski. She recently received the Queen Elizabeth Diamond JubileeMedal for her work with Canada's Indigenous communities, but her job is far from done. "I don't think that Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada can flourish until there's a common space with those narratives. It's all connected."
Jennifer offers a trio of options from Toronto to north of the city.
1. Bagel World (in Toronto)
"It's my all-time favourite. I've been going there for 40 years; I grew up down the street, and I still go with my dad. It's an institution."
2. Scandinave Spa at Blue Mountain (in Collingwood)
"It's a fantastic place to go year-round. I've suffered from Lyme disease for three years, and the healing waters at the spa work wonders on my body, giving me an overall feeling of wellness."
3. Painters Hall (in Barrie)
"It has become the place I like to go for special gatherings. I love the atmosphere and food, and there's a great space in the back with live music."
In honour of Black History Month, we spoke with Governor General's Award-winning historian and author Karolyn Smardz Frost about fugitive slave Cecelia Reynolds, and her journey to Canada through the Underground Railroad.
Canadian Living: Your book, Steal Away Home: One Woman's Epic Flight to Freedom — and Her Long Road Back to the South, opens at an excavation site in Toronto in 1985, which was the home of 15-year-old Cecelia, a former slave. How important was Toronto — and to a larger degree Ontario and Canada — during this time?
Karolyn Smardz Frost: The largest fugitive slave settlements are in what is now called Ontario. There was a very active community here — more people came and went in Toronto that records won't show. They were active in trying to end slavery and helping people get to Canada and then help them once they came. The community really stepped up.
I had a friend send me a photograph during the excavation process. I could see the foundation which was a whole city block [behind Toronto's City Hall] and knowing the history and heritage of that spot, I said, "that is the most important multicultural site to dig in Toronto!"
CL: When did you know that you wanted to tell the story of Cecelia's life?
KSF: I knew right away. I [came across] these five "friendly" letters…the only documents between a fugitive slave and her former mistress that spanned several years. And clearly Cecelia was writing to Fanny and she was answering. I believe this correspondence continued for 20 years. Fanny's son says there were more letters after his mother died but he didn't get them.
CL: Was Cecelia able to read and write?
KSF: She could read before she left Kentucky — it was one of the few places where it wasn't illegal to teach a slave to read and write. People often taught their slaves to read but not to write. Cecelia learned how to write in Toronto at night classes in the church basement, and there were eventually night-school classes through the Toronto School board.
CL: What did the two women talk about in their letters?
KSF: There was lots of family news because Fanny's father purchased Cecelia's mother.
CL: This is a complex relationship. What have you learned about them?
KSF: Fanny, the mistress and woman who became Cecelia's owner, was four-and-a-half years older than Cecelia and they had grown up together in the house since she was a baby. But it's certainly not an equal relationship.
CL: Was the purpose of the letters and correspondence to get her family back (which didn't happen) or did she want to keep in touch?
KSF: Ceceilia wanted to buy back her mother. Underneath all the affection and religious tone of the letters was the message that we're not selling your mom to you until we get the money. That is all the way through. No matter how affectionate those letters are, the cold hand of slavery is underneath all of it.
CL: What were Fanny's feelings towards slavery?
KSF: A letter around 1855 (six years before the civil war), Fanny wrote to Ceceilia, telling her that she thought slavery was a sin against God and that this evil in society can't continue. She also told her that if she came back to Kentucky, she would never enslave her again and understands why she needs to be free. Fanny kept a scrapbook with clippings of speeches by abolitionists in the Boston papers. She was a gently bred southern belle (she comes from two of the most important families in the southern United States — her mother's family are the Churchills from Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby, and her other half is William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) but she also had a spine of steel. She married the man she wanted (who developed a drinking habit), and she managed money.
CL: Why has researching and writing about Canada's Underground Railroad been such important work for you?
KSF: I started out as an archaeologist, and I wanted to make it socially relevant. My father was a Polish National Holocaust survivor who escaped a concentration camp, my mother taught special education at an inner-city school in Toronto, and my grandmother was one of the people in Toronto who objected to the internment of the Japanese in WW2. So, I grew up in a household where social justice was just what you did. I wanted to bring meaning to history. When I first found the Blackburn site in 1985, that changed my life, and I wrote my previous book about that.
CL: How is writing a book as a historian different?
KSF: Historical nonfiction is a difficult genre to write because you're telling a story but you must be sure that every bit of that story is as true as you can make it. So, you're constrained in a way that other writers are not. It takes a long time to write like this.
CL: It's Black History Month, why do you think this story is so relevant?
KSF: At a time when people are thinking more about African-Canadian history than they might at other times, it brings it to public attention. There's an argument that we should certainly be doing this all year long and not just during this month. Cecelia's story is phenomenal — she chose freedom over slavery, and risked everything to achieve it at the age of 15. And, she organized this with help of Underground Railroad operators in advance of leaving for Niagara when there was no Internet, just letters and word of mouth. To go to another country knowing no one — I think that's remarkable.
CL: What lessons can we learn today from this history?
KSF: Resistance. Stand up and be counted. Choose freedom. I think of Cecelia as a woman who valued freedom above all else. She always chose freedom.
Getty Images Image by: Getty Images
Pancakes doused in maple syrup are a Canadian staple for breakfast, but they're much more versatile than that! Enjoy them sweet or savoury, and for any meal of the day with some of our all-time favourite pancake recipes.
What's not to love about the humble pancake? A handful of pantry staples come together to make a delectable breakfast in no time. And if you don't have time to make them on weekdays, you can flip up a double batch on the weekend and freeze them for future use. They don't even need defrosting; just stick them straight in the toaster and voilà: breakfast in minutes!
But perhaps the greatest thing about pancakes is how adaptable the recipes are. Do you have some frozen berries in the fridge, or browning bananas on the counter? Into your batter they go. Did you run out of maple syrup? They're also great with honey, jam, or any kind of nut butter! Don't have much of a sweet tooth? Omit the sugar, add some savoury ingredients, and you've got lunch or dinner in minutes.
So whether you're looking for breakfast or dinner, we've got you covered with these terrific pancake recipes from our test kitchen:
Looking for a homemade version of the classic box mix pancakes? These buttermilk pancakes fry up like giant, fluffy clouds and will quickly become a family staple.
These adorable mini pancakes might be small in stature, but they're still huge in the flavour department. Store-bought pickled beets make a super-quick and tasty garnish, so you can spend less time prepping for your guests and more time enjoying the party!
This savoury Japanese pancake derives its name from the phrase "okonomi," meaning "how you like," because they are topped with whatever of your favourite foods you have lying around! Okonomiyaki makes a great starter for a small group or a hearty meal that serves one or two people.
These flourless pancakes taste a bit like the centre of a piece of French toast. They're rich enough that no one would ever guess they were gluten- and dairy-free!
Pancakes for dinner? Don't mind if we do! Kids will get a kick out of turning classic broccoli with cheese sauce into pancakes. Adding ham makes this breakfast-for-dinner a protein-rich meal.
You probably have all of the ingredients for these puffy pancakes in your fridge and pantry right now! And since they're both delicious and quite quick to make, they're an ideal last-minute brunch dish for any season, plus they can be easily customized to be sweet or savoury, depending on your mood.