Nadia George is an award-winning Mi’kmaq Canadian Actor, Public Speaker and Indigenous Rights and Youth Advocate. Her big break came in 2018 when she was cast as Jolene in the compelling short film Her Water Drum. The filmsheds light on the issues surrounding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The film screened at multiple film festivals around the world and garnered Nadia an award for “Best Achievement in Acting” at the 2018 Los Angeles Skins Film Festival. Her Water Drum has since been used as an essential educational tool to open discussions about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Nadia stars in the new short film Along The Water’s Edge, written and directed by Jonathan Elliott, which addresses the water crisis being faced by countless Indigenous communities across Canada. Along the Water’s Edge premiered at the 2020 Canadian Film Fest on June 6th, 2020.
I had the opportunity to speak with Nadia about her career. Nadia was born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She now resides near Toronto. She caught the acting bug at an early age, taking part in community theater. When it came time to go to university, Nadia chose Social Work as her major. However, she was able to take acting classes as electives. Nadia is of mixed race. Her father is Mi’kmaq, and her mother is Irish-Canadian. Her father taught her much about the Mi’kmaq culture as well as how to be strong and resilient.
We could have talked for hours about the issues that Indigenous people of North America face. Even though Nadia resides in Canada, she is very well aware that the obstacles that the Mi’kmaq people face are similar to what my people in the United States are facing. This is why she is using her acting career as a platform to bring awareness to these issues and advocate for change to better our communities.
THE LIVED EXPERIENCE
Noetta Harjo: Hi Nadia, it’s nice to meet you.
Nadia George: Hi! It’s great to meet you.
NH: Tell me how you got into acting.
NG: Being in this profession is interesting. I always had a thing for acting. I was in community theater when I was young and did a play at the Guelph Little Theater. But I went to college for social work. I started to recognize how traumatic historical events were for Indigenous people. And how these events affected the statistics of what is happening to our people now. So, it was this combination of, how can I take this social work experience that I have along with my lived experience and put it out there to start telling the world about it.
I was actually inspired by watching my son who created his own band in high school. They had a lot of success and now he’s got music on iTunes and Spotify. And I thought, you know what? Why not? Why not just go for it? If it doesn’t work out, oh well. And it has fortunately been successful for me. This is my opportunity to use this platform to start making people aware of the issues that our indigenous people face, of what it’s like to be a mixed, visibly Indigenous person, and to find your connection to your own culture and your people.
NH: At the start of your career did you take classes for your acting?
NG: When I was younger, we had a drama teacher come in grade five, and he was already a part of the community theater scene in Guelph. He wanted to take some of the students, and we were going to do this play. And up to then I had no acting experience whatsoever. I had been in front of a camera before, but nothing on stage. I remember going to plays. And Annie was actually the one that really stood out for me where I was like: ‘Oh, I want to be Annie. I’m going to be her one day.’ Outside of that when I was young, I didn’t take any kind of acting courses.
My real first acting classes didn’t happen until university. And then professionally, now I do still take workshops and training and classes because we are ever evolving as actors. It’s important for us to keep our tools sharp and to keep ourselves kind of surrounded and immersed. It’s easy to be a talking head, it’s another thing to bring the truth of the character or role to screen and be able to get people to feel what you want them to feel or to imagine themselves in those stories. So I do take acting classes now.
NH: Any advice for aspiring actors?
NG: I suggest for anybody who wants to get into it, start taking (classes) as soon as you can. Or get into community theater and start engaging in those steps. It’s good to get rid of your anxiety, which I suffer greatly from during auditions. And it’s also a great way to connect with artists around you.
NH: Talk about your first role, Jolene in Her Water Drum. What is the film about?
NG: Her Water Drum highlights the topic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The storyline is from the family’s perspective. I play Jolene, a Mohawk woman and single mother. When the movie begins, her daughter has been missing for six months. We focus on Jolene’s struggle of missing her daughter and staying connected to her son.
The film shows the course of Jolene’s emotional rollercoaster and how she finds a way to connect with her son, even after he finds out that she has been keeping some secrets from him. It’s a very powerful movie, but the one thing I like about the film is that it’s not vulgar, it doesn’t have any violence. Jonathan Elliott, the director and writer, did a really good job to make sure that this could be as powerful of a message, but not overly triggering to families who maybe have to watch it. So now it’s being used as an educational tool to address the topic with teenagers, elders and anyone.
NH: When TV and film address the MMIWG issue, it’s either too much or it’s not enough. And the topic is often misrepresented in mainstream film and television.
NG: Sometimes we see stories in the media, but we’re not getting the lived truth and lived experiences of the people who are being affected. I don’t think a lot of non-indigenous recognize the problem. We have voices but we’re not being heard. I feel like it is my obligation as a visibly white-passing Indigenous person to start these conversations in rooms where other people can’t get into. It’s sad and unfortunate that it has to be that way.
NH: It’s obvious that you are dedicated to raising Indigenous voices in your films. Tell more about your activism off camera.
NG: I guess you could consider me an activist since about 2007. I first started out working with people with physical disabilities. My father volunteered with the Special Olympics back in the 1990s, and I witnessed the joy it gave him. When my father passed away in 2001, I decided I wanted to continue that journey and live out his dream. I was approached by someone from Influencers MotiV8, also known as MotiV8 Canada. They thought I was perfect for them because I was a therapist and I’m indigenous and an actor. Influencers MotiV8 sent me up as part of a team to the Northwest Territories to talk to Indigenous youth about achieving their dreams and careers, and how they can get into acting. We’d also talk about mental health, health and wellness and making sure our people are protected from scams.
I got involved with the Child Welfare Political Action Committee through my best friend, Jane Kovarikova. We both have lived experience through the child welfare system, but hers is much more extensive than mine. She realized that there was a lack of evidence-based research on the outcomes of youth aging out of care. And what we were seeing is that in the last 40 years, the outcomes of these youth have not improved. We’ve been doing research and advocating for policy for three years. Through collaboration with certain colleges and universities In Canada a new tuition waiver is being offered. So that way crown wards can have access to free tuition without the limitations that some of the other waivers out there have. We are doing research on if these policies are creating positive change for these youth.
NH: So did your activism lead to the COVID awareness PSA?
NG: So, that was actually kind of fun, because Dave Devos had asked us, the Motiv8 Canada ambassadors, to create our own PSA. Mary Galloway, who was another person on the team, thought the PSA would be more powerful if we could get some really well known indigenous actors to come on board with us. I was like: ‘You know, I’m going to reach out to a bunch of people. We’ll see who comes back and says yes.’ And I was really fortunate to have the people that were in that PSA. I have to give some credit to Zahn (McClarnon), he just started giving me all of these ideas of who to reach out to. Everyone was so on board to do it, and it was just a lot of fun.
The reason it came about is because we were getting word from a lot of the Northern Canadian communities that the youth just weren’t listening to curfew. They weren’t listening to the safety policies. And we have fought so hard as indigenous people to keep our culture and our traditions alive. Our elders are the ones that hold most of those stories. Elders and seniors are the most vulnerable, we want to protect our communities and we want to protect our elders. So that was one of the main reasons that it came out is that we were hoping we could reach youth and say, “Hey guys, like if you’re not going to listen to your parents, at least listen to us, please.”
It was cool to see all the videos that came in and how we were able to put it together as a collaboration. I actually got to edit it. That was the one of the first things I’ve ever edited.
NH: That’s great! I don’t know what the impact has been on the Native communities in Canada, but here, the Navajo Nation was hit hard. And it’s not just because of the social distancing or wearing face masks. A huge part of the problem is accessibility to fresh water, safe water, to wash your hands, and it’s accessibility to food and health care. That’s always been a real issue for a lot of these communities.
NG: You bring up a good point about that because in some of the other interviews, I’ve been asked to talk about the water crisis in Canada. Some of these media outlets were from the states, and I thought it was important to inform people that this is an issue in the states as well. There are communities out there who don’t have access to clean drinking water, to healthcare and the things that we need as humans to be able to overcome this COVID situation. I think it’s probably even more difficult in areas that would be considered desert lands, where they don’t have access to fresh running water and even if they do, they still have to boil it. It’s so disheartening to think that people just don’t seem to do the research or take the time to understand.
ALONG THE WATER’S EDGE
NH: That brings me to your current film, Along the Water’s Edge. This film is about the water crisis and where we could end up being in 10 years. Talk a little bit about that film
NG: Along the Water’s Edge is a movie that highlights the issue that we are having throughout our Indigenous communities with contaminated water. And how important it is that the government comes on board and finally carries through with the promises that they have made.
It really is about catching the emotions of how many of our indigenous communities are feeling. They’re stuck between this rock and a hard place of where they’re figuring out how to maintain and survive. No human should ever be in a position to have to decide that. Partway through the film, you start seeing the resiliency of our people. These changes have to be made, not just for indigenous people, but the whole entire world. Once our waters are gone, they’re gone. Once the water is contaminated, it’s gone, unless we start doing something about it now.
NH: I’m actually very interested in watching this. It’s so disheartening, because people are continuing to live like they’re never going to run out of resources. A water shortage is going to come very quickly. And I don’t think that they realize that.
NG: It is really difficult to not want to just yell at the top of rooftops about it. And this is where I think we really need, as humans, to start recognizing our own points of privilege. For example, it really struck me, when we were on the set of Her Water Drum, we were filming out on a reservation. We had big things of water and a water cooler and all of that in the home where we were filming. And the first thing that was said to me was do not wash your hands in the water. As a social advocate, it hit me so deep because I’m in this person’s home. I’m like: “Hey, hold on a second. So I get to be here for a few weekends, and I get clean water and I get the clean drinking water to wash my hands in and things, but this person has to go back to living in this home.” This is not a momentary thing for them. They have to bathe in and live with this toxic water, and they have to boil this water. It made me want to cry. We take for granted these things we don’t realize that are so significant for so many other people.
NH: Do you have any aspirations about getting behind the camera?
NG: Yes, I do. One day. I would love to be able to write my own film, whether it be a feature or a short. I watch some of my friends who were writers and directors, and I do not by any means discount what goes into those projects. It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort. And I hope one day that I can eventually do that. Right now I’m getting a little bit more into editing and learning some tools, very minimal. It’s exciting to see the projects once they come out. It’s also interesting because you get to see it from the other perspective. You get to see it from a director’s perspective or the film writer’s perspective. And that actually helps me as an actor when I’m in front of the camera, because I know kind of what they’re looking for in the sense of timing, character change, mood, change choices… all that kind of stuff.
NH: What are you working on now?
NG: So we are doing more with our show Camp Cowabunga, which is a kids’ show. It’s so funny. Adults will love it, too. We’ve got three episodes out right now, but with COVID that has put the filming for the remaining episodes on hold. So we are in the works of doing some nifty kind of things with the characters where we can create maybe more of a virtual community. I can’t really give any details yet. It’s still in the works. And we’re hoping to be able to put out some more content and get back to filming.
NH: Tell me about Camp Cowabunga.
NG: Camp Cowabunga is set in the ’80s. It’s kind of like Sesame Street. All the camp counselors are human, but all of the campers are puppets. It’s a really interesting role to play. So I play Lily, who is an indigenous camp counselor. And the other thing I really love about the show is that it includes our indigenous culture. So I get to talk a few words in Mi’kmaq and teach kids about the language. One episode we talk about getting your vitamin C, and how you can do that with pine needle tea. I’m hoping maybe one day to go to a kids Comic-Con and share a little bit of the show.
NH: That’s awesome. I’ll have to check that out. Nadia, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate all the work you are doing for the First Nations people of Canada and all Indigenous people everywhere.
NG: Thank you it was great talking to you.
Wela’lin (Mi’kmaq: Thank you) Nadia for a compelling conversation. Our Indigenous communities are so far apart in distance, but we share similar issues and concerns. I hope we can continue talking about these issues across borders and work together to come up with solutions that will benefit all Indigenous people.
This article was originally published on 7/3/20
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