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."