Cardinal, Gil

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Cardinal, Gil

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        Gil Cardinal was a film/video director, writer, and producer of Métis descent based in Edmonton, Alberta. Over the course of his career, he created several documentaries and fiction films and television programs with a particular emphasis on the indigenous experience in Canada.

        Cardinal was born in Edmonton on July 19, 1950 and was placed into foster care at the age of two, where he remained until adulthood. Cardinal graduated from the Radio and TV Arts program of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1971 and began working as a studio cameraman at Alberta's educational television network, ACCESS. After working on the studio floor for several years, he became a staff producer and director and worked on the series Come Alive and Shadow Puppets: Indian Myths and Legends, a series about Cree and Blackfoot legends.

        Cardinal left ACCESS in 1980 to work as a freelance writer, director, researcher, and editor for the National Film Board (NFB). His first project that he directed for the NFB was Children of Alcohol, produced by fellow Albertan filmmaker Anne Wheeler, a documentary that focused on the effects of parental alcoholism on children. His other NFB titles from this period include Discussions in Bioethics: The Courage of One's Convictions and Hotwalkers, a short documentary about racetrack trainers and groomers. He also worked as a freelance filmmaker commissioned by such agencies as the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Alberta Native Affairs Secretariat to create educational short films.

        In 1987, Cardinal released his NFB film Foster Child, a documentary about Cardinal's own search for his birth family. The film depicts Cardinal's discovery of his Métis heritage as it occurred and established him as a major voice in Canadian documentary filmmaking. Foster Child won a Gemini Award for Best Direction in an Information or Documentary Program or Series from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Documentary. Cardinal also won a Special Jury Award at the 1988 Banff Television Festival, a Silver Reel Award for Best Documentary Short at the 1987 American Indian Film Festival, a Red Ribbon Award at the 1988 American Film and Video Festival, and a Special Jury Award at the 1988 Alberta Film Awards among others.

        Cardinal continued working as a freelance filmmaker for the NFB throughout the 1980s, making such documentaries as The Spirit Within (focusing on Native cultural and spiritual programs in Canadian prisons) and Tikinagan (focusing on Native control of child welfare programs).

        In 1990, Cardinal and several partners (Wil Campbell, Tom Radford, Andy Thomson, and Dorothy Schreiber) formed Great Plains Productions, a Native-controlled film and video production company dedicated to the development of Native filmmakers and the creation of motion pictures from a Native perspective. In 1992, Great Plains Productions released its documentary series My Partners, My People on Global TV and CTV. This series featured thirteen half-hour episodes focusing on different aspects of contemporary Native culture across Canada and was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best Documentary Series by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in 1993.

        Following the success of My Partners, My People, Cardinal was hired by BBC to direct, write, and co-produce a documentary on the Assembly of First Nations' attempts to negotiate full participation in the constitutional reforms of 1992. The resulting production, Our Home and Native Land, aired in the United Kingdom and Canada and earned Best of the Festival, Best Direction, and Best Documentary awards at the 1994 Alberta Film Awards.

        Cardinal continued work as both a freelance filmmaker and director of his own production companies (including Strange Empire Productions and Kanata Productions) throughout the 1990s. His work during this period included David with F.A.S. (an NFB documentary on a young man with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), The Great Possibility: Louis Riel and the Métis Resistance (a one-hour documentary for Canwest Global), and episodes of Native-centric television shows North of 60 and The Rez.

        In 1998, Cardinal was hired by CBC to direct, co-write, and co-produce a large-scale miniseries about Cree chief Big Bear and his involvement in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. The miniseries, Big Bear, was a four-hour epic that once again garnered Cardinal a Gemini Award nomination for Best Direction in a Dramatic Program or Mini-Series by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in 1999.

        In 2000, Cardinal founded a new film production company, Homeland Films, and continued working as a freelance filmmaker through the 2000s. He directed and wrote two episodes of the History TV series Chiefs (one on Cree chief Poundmaker and the other on Mohawk chief Joseph Brant), two NFB documentaries about the repatriation of the G'psgolox totem pole from Sweden to the Haisla community of Kitimat, British Columbia (Totem: The Return of the G'psgolox Pole and Totem: Return and Renewal), and once again created a miniseries for CBC, this time about the Oka Crisis of 1990 (Indian Summer: The Oka Crisis).

        In the 2010s, Cardinal has wrote episodes for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network series Blackstone, a drama about corruption and politics on a fictional First Nations reserve, and continued to work as a contract producer with the NFB.

        In addition to the awards mentioned above, Cardinal also received an honorary diploma in Communications Technologies from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in Media and Communications, and was a 2006 inductee into the Dreamspeakers Film Festival Walk of Honour, which honours Aboriginal pioneers in the film, broadcasting, and music industries. Cardinal has also taught courses and master classes on filmmaking for the National Screen Institute, the ImagineNative Film Festival, and the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta.

        Gil Cardinal died in Edmonton on 21 November 2015.


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