Questions about identity, belonging, and the eternal search for self-definition are universal ones that transcend the boundaries of time and space, but also those of cultural or national affiliation. At the core of the great human experience, everyone just wants to feel safe. Such security is often related to community and family. For some Canadians this knowledge of one’s roots may be a treasure trove of stories and cherished photographs, but for far too many survivors of generational trauma and government sanctioned abuse, a discussion about genealogy is a much more haunting exploration.
Ontario-born writers Jennifer Podemski and Hannah Moscovitch beautifully and poignantly narrate the story of Bezhig Little Bird, played by Canadian actress and rising star Darla Contois, in the newly released Crave APTN series Little Bird (2023). The journey of main character Bezhig Little Bird is also the story of Esther Rosenblum.
Like far too many Indigenous children victimized the Sixties Scoop, Bezhig and her younger brother and sister are forcibly taken from their mother by government social workers Jeannie and Adele (played by Janet Kidder and Alanna Bale). Bezhig is adopted by a loving and well-intentioned Jewish couple, Holocaust survivors, and raised within an affluent home in Montreal’s Jewish community as Esther Rosenblum. The name “Esther” is given to her by her adoptive Jewish mother Golda, in honour of a sister lost in Poland during the Holocaust.
“The second I heard ‘Jewish’ and ‘Indigenous’ I was like ‘yes’! That’s definitely something I want to do,” commented writer Jennifer Podemski remembering her reaction when first approached to work on the project. Born in Toronto to a Jewish father and Indigenous mother, Podemski’s own upbringing in a Jewish area was itself a crossroads of cultures and identities.
“I am a person who is deeply immersed in multilayered identity being Jewish, having a dad who was born in Israel. […] My grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side are residential school survivors. At the center of this I am a storyteller immersed in the cultures that make up my identity,” Podemski elaborated further during a recent phone interview with Alberta Native News enroute to her next stop along a tour of promotional events.
“As Indigenous storytellers we are responsible for upholding authenticity around our stories. Since the beginning of screen stories, our Indigenous stories and perspectives have been filtered through the lens of non-Indigenous storytellers, which has created a false narrative about who we are, where we come from, and the experiences we’ve had.”
Little Bird is more than just a narrative exploration of identity though, it is a loving examination of mothers and daughters – the families of birth, and the families of circumstance. As Esther is driven to rediscover the truth about Bezhig, her younger self, it is a painful road for the woman who raised her as well. Golda, dazzlingly portrayed by Lisa Edelstein, a primetime staple, and instantly recognizable Hollywood face, has poured all her love, hopes, and dreams into her adopted daughter Esther.
“Being raised very aware of what happened to our family during the Holocaust, I was really proud to be able to play this part and represent that story,” said Edelstein in a recent phone interview with ANNews. “What I was really trying to grab onto in the performance was that particular generation of Jewish women that I knew, who didn’t smile in the way we smile now. […] They laughed when it was funny but there wasn’t a necessity of having emotional approval from the world,” she explained further.
“I think the most important thing is having a heart that is open enough to accept the difficult reality that you may have been complicit in, and I think that’s really Golda’s journey. In no way did she understand what was happening in the Sixties Scoop when she adopted her daughter. […] But when her daughter confronts her about what that system really was, she’s resistant, like most people, because no one wants to be a part of something so ugly,” she concluded meaningfully.
Edelstein’s performance is nuanced, moving, and captivating as Golda experiences so many dimensions of loss and love.
The protagonist must find a way to merge the identities of Bezhig and Esther to find peace for herself before marrying and starting her own family. Her journey is simultaneously heartwarming and profoundly excruciating. This collision of emotions from the entire spectrum of humanity is condensed into Esther’s story – each episode more poignant than the last. The questions raised are not just about the story of one young woman, but the many stories of a lost generation of children robbed of their sense of self identity by institutionalized colonial values.
Beneath a thin veil of performed acceptance, there is judgement and discrimination. After overhearing derogatory and hateful remarks made by her fiancé’s mother, Esther begins to see that the community she thought she belonged in does not consider her one of their own. Such traumatizing moments ignite within the viewer introspective reflection surrounding how we, as a society, treat one another, and whether we, as individuals, are truly as accepting as we present ourselves to be.
“Everybody is going to take away something different,” explained Darla Contois during an on-the-road phone interview with the ANNews. “It depends where your ready to hear from, where you’re ready to listen from, and what you’re ready to take in. As Canadians this story is part of our collective history and it’s something that we need to understand and be part of in order to move forward together.”
Opposite a longtime TV veteran like Edelstein, up-and-comer Contois was entrusted with the role of a lifetime, in a performance that showcases her thoughtful talent and compassion for her character. She remembers the late-night phone call from Podemski where she was first offered the part, and how she burst into uncontrollable tears of joy.
“I think in Esther it’s complicated for her to navigate her own personal history with being raised by a mother who lost her family in the Holocaust and then also understanding that her birth family has suffered through the genocide of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, and also mass murder. […] Esther just has so much love for her mother and so much love for her birth family and where she comes from that it just ends up being a really beautiful, incredible story,” the leading lady commented. Contois is of Cree-Saulteaux heritage and a 2014 graduate of the Professional Training Program at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. Little Bird is her breakthrough role, and the journey has been an intense one. She worked with a dialect specialist to perfect the Montreal-Jewish accent of Esther, studied Judaism and Jewish culture through intensive instruction in preparation for the role. She even became a connoisseur of Jewish food – matzoh ball soup being her favorite. Now, the series is ready for binge watching, and the young ingenue can only sit back as audiences fall in love with Esther and her story.
“I think inherently it’s a nerve-wracking experience overall. But I think that putting that trust in the directors and putting that trust in everyone who has had a hand in getting this show to audiences makes me feel a lot better.”
When asked what she admires most about the character she spent so much time inhabiting, Contois commented thoughtfully: “I think the thing that I admire about her the most is her tenacity to really understand and to take care of the people around her. Because while she’s going through this incredibly tumultuous journey, she’s also conscious and trying so hard to not be disrespectful to her Jewish mother and to not be disrespectful to her Indigenous family and I think she just has so much love for the people around her and that’s something I really admired, and I really enjoyed playing.”
The story is gripping, and the characters compelling to watch. What comes through most is the humanity of the project. Audiences care about Esther, and along with her they will celebrate her victories, and cry sincerely with all she must endure. Little Bird is now available to stream on Crave and APTN.