If you’ve ever watched the Emmy-nominated comedy Corner Gas, you may recognize Lorne Cardinal who played Sgt. Davis Quinton, an overly-sensitive police officer who is one of only two police officers in the small town of Dog River. Like many Canadians of my generation, I am familiar with CTV’s Corner Gas  and I was really looking forward to speaking directly with the multi-talented actor and director.

I was pleasantly surprised when he walked in the room charismatically and immediately cracked a joke, putting everyone at ease. This was his first time at the Vision Quest Conference, and he was not only one of the keynote presenters but he also led the workshop “Unleash Your Potential” with his wife and writing partner, artist Monique Hurteau.

The high energy workshop involved interactive exercises to increase confidence, improve communication skills and develop realistic strategies to achieve goals. After putting the group through some fun icebreakers, they moved on to asset mapping— a group activity where each person writes down the things they are most proud of. According to Cardinal, it’s common for a lot of people to write down the degree they have or the job they do; however, Cardinal explains that while those things are significant achievements, it’s the things like “I quit smoking”, “I’m drug-free” or “I’m running and living a healthy life” that need to be celebrated and acknowledged because of the amount of work it takes to achieve those seemingly smaller goals.

Today’s society dictates how we define success, and we sometimes lose sight of what success really is. “We get blinded by bling and the doctor in the TV reality show and other nonsense that’s out there and we think that’s success, but that isn’t real,” he explained. “Planting a garden, running a marathon or quitting smoking is real—these things take dedication and focus, and those achievements need to be recognized. That is being successful.”

“It’s the lens you look through that defines success, and unfortunately we get the glamourous one shoved down our throat everywhere we turn,” said Cardinal. During the workshop, Cardinal and Hurteau focused on getting people talking “because speaking to someone else can be cripplingly shy”. For many people, speaking in public or to strangers is scary, but just like riding a bike, it does get easier with practice. “If you’re too shy to speak, it makes it difficult to ask for help,” said Cardinal. “It can stop you from achieving your goals. The more you speak in public, the easier it gets. Those experiences add up, and soon you’ll be able to speak for others.”

Now I wanted to know how Lorne Cardinal got into acting. Cardinal claims it was by accident. He never knew he wanted to be an actor. He had been a dark room technician, a photographer and he had played high level rugby in Alberta with the goal of playing for Team Canada. He developed a love of photography—capturing looks and faces. At the time he didn’t realize that what he was doing was storytelling.

All of the things he has done in his past have informed his career as an actor and director. Cardinal explained that his experience on a rugby team has been entirely applicable to directing film and TV and in acting. “You need a  solid team to work,” he said. “I know my role in this story is to support this person and make them look good, as brilliantly shiny or as mean as they need to be. That’s my job as part of this team—to tell this story.”

As he describes his experiences, I get a really good sense of the passion he has for his craft and for good storytelling. Celebrity status and awards are certainly by-products of the industry but you can tell that those things are not the driving force behind Cardinal’s work.

He recalls a show he did in Toronto called Sixty Below  by Leonard Linklater and Patti Flather (Playwrights Guild of Canada) where he got to play a hero named Johnnie, who happened to be a ghost. In the beginning of the play the audience believes Johnnie was killed in a hunting accident, but as the story unfolds you come to learn that he killed himself which was witnessed by his best friend, and the grief completely destroys his life. The play proved too dark for the press and the reviews were not what Cardinal expected, but he remembers a young Indigenous man visiting them backstage between shows. “He poked his head in the curtain of our change room and said he liked the show and thanked us,” said Cardinal. “He had been thinking about suicide, but after seeing the show, and in that moment, he changed his mind. That’s why I do what I do, why I do those stories.”

Cardinal is very aware of others. He takes the time to meet his fans and say hi to people “because you never know what people are going through”. “It doesn’t take any time to shake a person’s hand and let them know ‘I see you’, ” he said. “As a celebrity you have responsibilities. To open the doors for others so that they don’t have to go through the same challenges that you went through.”

We discussed some of the challenges he’s faced in the industry, and like many minority actors he’s had to deal with typecasting. Cardinal mentioned that the industry is slowly changing; however, he feels it’s also the responsibility of Indigenous actors to speak up when things are not right. “You are always educating, always enlightening. You are always the professional Indian on set. And if there are not many of you, then you are the one they go to,” said Cardinal. “If something is not right, then you need to offer a solution to make it better—those are the change makers. If you don’t provide an alternative with reason, then nothing changes.”

Cardinal wears many hats in this industry, from acting, writing and directing, but his favourite is acting. He adores the whole process of acting on stage—the rehearsal process, working with a team and telling a story from beginning to end. He tries to do theatre at least once a year because he enjoys it so much. One of the works he is most proud of is his most recent project called The Tempest, which he performed at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, earlier this spring.

Directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, The Tempest  is the retelling of one of Shakespeare’s plays, featuring both deaf and hearing actors onstage together. “It was fascinating learning to work with each other, learning from each other and learning to respect each other. The deaf culture is quite unique. They have faced similar challenges to those of Indigenous peoples. They were institutionalized, they were taken away from their parents and they were abused,” said Cardinal. “Their history is so similar to that of Indigenous residential survivors. It made me feel closer to them.”

The Tempest  involved theatre practices that were physically and mentally challenging. Cardinal describes the set as a shipwreck, with a rain curtain that would rain down onto the stage. “We walked in water and through water, and up and down ramps and ladders. Edmonton had not seen a Shakespeare like that ever.”

Cardinal described this theatre experience as a visceral masterpiece because the sound design was created for hearing impaired and deaf audiences, and included reverberations that were felt by all in the audience. He also described the production as “a visual feast” because of the incredible lighting and the simultaneous performances between speaking actors and signing actors. Simply amazing.

A pioneer for Indigenous entertainers, Cardinal’s dedication to his craft and compassion for others is truly admirable. His advice to young people today is “anything is possible, even if you come from a small community like me. Heck, if I can make it, anything is possible. There are no shortcuts though—you have to work at it.”

By D. Vienneau