TORONTO — Feelings of grief and a desire for healing were constant on the set of the ’60s Scoop drama “Little Bird,” says showrunner and co-creator Jennifer Podemski, who drew on her own mixed heritage to explore the psychological fallout of an Indigenous woman adopted as a child by a Jewish family.
Many members of the Indigenous-led cast and crew had family stories about the government practice in which Indigenous children were taken from their birth families and adopted into predominantly white, middle-class homes, she said Thursday, making the shoot a “very traumatic” experience for some.
Podemski said a therapist was on set, as was a “medicine tent” that housed gifts from an elder to encourage healing for cast and crew rattled by upsetting themes in the dramatization for Crave and APTN lumi.
“These are extremely triggering stories to tell – not just for Indigenous people and not just for people who experienced the current reality of colonial violence in whatever form that is, which is an everyday reality for us as Indigenous people, but for non-Indigenous people who were realizing the gravity of the situation and feeling guilty,” said Podemski, who is not a ‘60s Scoop survivor but was raised by a Jewish father and an Indigenous mother from Muscowpetung First Nation in Saskatchewan.
“(There were) a lot of feelings of, like, ‘Why didn’t I know this?’ So it was open for everybody to come together and be together and heal together.”
The six-part limited series, premiering Friday, stars Darla Contois as Esther Rosenblum, a 20-something Montrealer who is haunted by fragmented memories of her early childhood and the sudden drive to unravel the circumstances of her adoption and removal from Long Pine Reserve in Saskatchewan.
She embarks on a bid to reconnect with her Indigenous heritage and track down her birth family and siblings, but reclaiming her past soon threatens her present-day relationships and fragile sense of identity.
Contois, who is Cree and Saulteaux from Misipawistik Cree Nation in Manitoba, said she tapped into her own family’s experiences with racism and trauma to portray the increasingly unmoored Esther, who grows up with a supportive Jewish family and is engaged to marry a Jewish man but still faces bigotry within her Jewish community.
Contois said she also found a way to embody Esther’s growing discomfort as she struggles to reconcile two very different parts of herself.
“The way that I come across on camera as not fitting in is very real to how Esther feels consistently,” Contois said Thursday during a round of interviews alongside Podemski and co-star Lisa Edelstein.
“She was very much just always trying to find a place to belong, and not able to find that place. There’s this unsteadiness to her that she inevitably faces in every single one of her relationships.”
The team includes Indigenous directors Zoe Hopkins and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, with Hopkins also serving as co-writer alongside celebrated playwright Hannah Moscovitch.
The largely Indigenous cast includes Ellyn Jade, Osawa Muskwa, Joshua Odjick, Imajyn Cardinal, Braeden Clarke, Eric Schweig and Michelle Thrush.
Edelstein plays Esther’s adoptive mother, Golda Rosenblum, who is very resistant to the truth as Esther starts to uncover her past.
The former “House” star said her white character offers non-Indigenous viewers an avenue to grasp the story “in a way that doesn’t make them push back and deny.”
“Golda participated in the ‘60s Scoop thinking she was doing a good deed – she had no idea that she was complicit in such a horrifying and damaging system. And her response to it is like anybody who feels like they were doing the right thing, she’s defensive about it,” said Edelstein, who said she knew nothing about the practice before joining “Little Bird.”
“But it’s her love for her daughter and her own personal experience of horrific tragedy and the Holocaust that allows her to be open enough to start seeing the truth and to support her child.”
Edelstein said it’s important to acknowledge that even if adopted families believed they were doing good, their actions were based on racist beliefs.
“People were just told these children were abandoned, and they just believed it because they had a belief about Indigenous people that would make sense – that of course all these children are abandoned because that’s what happens in those communities,” she said.
In a separate phone interview, Moscovitch, who is Jewish, said she was “heartbroken” to only learn of the ’60s Scoop through her work on “Little Bird,” and was initially wary of joining the project as a non-Indigenous person.
“I come from a community that’s deeply traumatized by genocide. So, to find out that there was one I didn’t know about and it happened in Canada was really (screwed) up. It immediately got my attention.”
She said on-set advisers included two ‘60s Scoop survivors who read the scripts, gave notes and shared invaluable first-hand accounts of what it was like to experience such traumatic upheaval.
“It was like shooting ‘Schindler’s List’ with a Holocaust survivor beside you. It’s going to make you feel a responsibility to get an authentic portrayal,” said Moscovitch, also noting “a lot of grief on set” but also “beautiful moments and love and laughter.”
While the entire six-part series traces Esther’s gradual awakening, Podemski described Esther’s new insight as just the beginning of her journey as an adult. She hoped it can spark a new journey of awareness for viewers as well.
“We’re hoping that this will be an entry into the conversation,” she said, connecting a general lack of understanding about the ’60s Scoop to broader societal problems.
“The fact that the majority of Canadians or Americans don’t ever think about Indigenous people at all, ever, is reflected in the way that nobody says anything when we have a missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic.
“Nobody says anything when we have disproportionate numbers of incarceration and suicide and that feels like it’s so by design that no one thinks about it and cares about it because we were never part of the narrative.”
“Little Bird” begins streaming Friday on Crave and APTN lumi, in English and French, with subsequent episodes dropping Fridays.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2023.
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press