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'It is the time': Edmonton-born Tribal star Jessica Matten says it could be a golden era for Indigenous film and television

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Actress Jessica Matten wanted to make a television series about Indigenous people in the foster-care system.

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She was not going to pull any punches. Tentatively titled Candy, it was to be unapologetically dark in its exploration of the foster system’s impact on Indigenous children, on missing and murdered aboriginal women and on human trafficking. When the Edmonton-born actress was pitching the project to various entities in her home country, she said they were supportive and respectful and praised her ideas. Unfortunately, they also said it was too gritty for Canada.

“I said, ‘With respect, you are competing on an international market with all these streaming services and all the quality work out there,’ ” says Matten, in an interview with Postmedia from Santa Fe, N.M. “I said, ‘Let’s push things more.’ They just weren’t up for it.”

Rather than change it, Matten took some advice from one of her mentors, Canadian screenwriter and showrunner Chris Haddock. Haddock created the CBC series Da Vinci’s Inquest, among others, and was also a writer and executive producer on Martin Scorsese’s HBO crime drama Boardwalk Empire.

“He said, ‘Take it to the States, Jess,’ ” Matten says with a laugh.

This is exactly what Matten is doing, albeit now as a feature film rather than a TV series. She is now filming a short version of Candy in Santa Fe as a treatment to present to investors and other producers. She has landed Alberta’s Eugene Brave Rock and American actor Raoul Trujillo of Mayans M.C. to act in it.

She has cast some newcomers, including a trans teen and a young American Indigenous actress who actually came through the foster-care system in the U.S.

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“My biggest thing, within this industry, is making sure that I’m continuously supporting and facilitating a work environment for Indigenous youth and helping them with their dreams,” says Matten, who is of Red River Metis-Cree descent. “That’s why I’m in the film industry. That’s why I’m acting, because I’m so hyper-aware that it’s given me the tools and the resources and the people that I need to get more into the producing realm of things.”

It’s just one of many things the actress, writer and producer is up to as of late. On this particular day, she is in Santa Fe on a break from shooting a lead role in Dark Winds, an AMC series produced by Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin about two Navajo police officers investigating a double murder in the 1970s. She is also promoting the second season of APTN’s Calgary-shot police procedural Tribal. She is the star of that series and this year also became one of its producers. It’s also the official reason for this call.

With all this going on, it would be understandable if the second season of Tribal wasn’t top of mind for the actress. But the series, which airs Thursdays and Fridays on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, has always fit nicely into Matten’s ambitions in film and television. A police procedural created by Metis writer-director-producer Ron E. Scott, it stars Matten as Tribal Police Chief Sam Woodburn and Brian Markinson as her occasionally reluctant Metro partner Detective Chuck (Buke) Bukansky. The series is certainly not without its own grit. The first season ended with a particularly dark cliffhanger when a tomb containing the bodies of some murdered Indigenous victims was discovered under a water treatment plant. Not unlike other TV police procedurals, the series usually has a crime-of-the-week structure. But most of the storylines centre on issues that impact the Indigenous community, with episodes shining a light on poaching on tribal lands, blockades, racist cops, restorative justice and so-called “starlight tours,” the name given to the practice of police picking up and abandoning Indigenous people in rural areas at night in the dead of winter.

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The second season will delve a little more into Sam’s family history as well and how she and Buke deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You see what happens to a cop when they are on the verge of internally giving up, when it just becomes too much, too overwhelming,” Matten says. “It’s an interesting topic this season because we delve into Bukansky’s story about where all this PTSD comes from. We got into the past of what his PTSD is about, while Sam Woodburn is experiencing her own PTSD in the present and still having a hard time processing or aware that she is going through that. When you are experiencing trauma, you don’t realize you are in it. It’s not until later. We don’t react or respond in a way that you would typically think a person should act or behave: bursting out crying, freaking out, getting angry. What I wanted to create for Sam Woodburn is to slowly see the twinkle leaving her eyes; her not having any crazy outbursts, but just giving up.”

Jessica Matten stars as Sam Woodburn in Tribal. Courtesy, Prairie Dog Film and Television
Jessica Matten stars as Sam Woodburn in Tribal. Courtesy, Prairie Dog Film and Television Photo by David T. Brown /jpg

One of the reasons Matten was first attracted to Tribal was that it seemed to overlap with her concerns as an activist. She has worked with high-risk youth at a group home in Vancouver and conducted Indigenous Fitness and Wellness Youth Workshops across Canada. Her mother, Therese Ducharme, is a Metis activist who worked for the Native Women’s Association of Canada and was part of the Sisters in Spirit team that worked with families of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Jennifer McPherson, Matten’s cousin, was murdered in 2013 by a man who had already killed an Indigenous woman years before. Her family is still fighting for justice in the case.

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While Matten has had a successful career in television, with major roles not only in Tribal and the upcoming Dark Winds but also Burden of Truth and the Netflix historical drama Frontier, she says she still experiences racism in her own country. In Winnipeg, which is where her mother’s family comes from, she says she is routinely followed by security guards in stores. Seven years ago while in Quebec, she was denied gas at a service station and called a “dirty squaw.”

“This stuff still exists in Canada, it’s pretty wild,” she says. “I don’t let it affect me on a daily basis. I don’t believe in dwelling on it. It doesn’t serve you any purpose. You have to think forward and just continue to create good things in the world and help other people.”

In the future, this will likely mean that Matten will not only choose projects that offer diverse representation in front of and behind the camera but also develop them herself. She said she happily took career advice from her friend Jason Momoa recently, who was her co-star in Frontier and reached A-list status with roles in Game of Thrones, Aquaman and Dune.

“When we were filming Frontiers, he was starting to film Aquaman at the same time and he had all these other projects on the go and I thought ‘This is a wild man, how is he able to do all this stuff at once?’ ” Matten says. “We always keep in touch with each other and in March he said, ‘Why don’t you just make your own films? Just do it. Do it now.’ I said ‘OK, I need to think about this’ and he was like ‘Do it now.’ What he was really trying to say was you can (do it) and now is the time. If there was any a time in history, it’s now. You can call it the renaissance or the Indigenous era in film and TV, but it is the time. If you have the balls to jump on that train, then do it.”

Tribal airs on APTN on Thursdays and Fridays.

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