North of 60 Interview: Tina Keeper

Tina Keeper obviously needs no introduction to "North of 60" fans.
What you may not know about, though, is her offscreen work to
improve the lives of other Native Canadians. She talks about that
work in this interview, along with her other acting projects and, of
course, "Another Country." You may also want to read my interview
with her from October, 2000.

"North of 60" publicist Fran Humphreys was also with us.


PW: Obviously I want to ask you about this movie, but I also want to take a few minutes to ask you about your other activities. I know you were just in "Skins." You're listed as "Dr. Fitzgerald," but the film hasn't been released yet, so maybe you can fill us in a bit about who that is.

(Click on photo for larger image.)

TK: I simply was a doctor.

PW: A physician?

TK: Yeah. She works in a hospital. She's like a G.P. She's First Nations, so she knows the characters. The main characters were Eric Schweig and Graham Greene. It was Graham's character who needed medical attention, and I also needed to deal with Eric's character, who is the younger brother to Graham's character. We know each other, because I work on the hospital that's on the reserve, the reservation. So I did a few scenes with them, and it was great. It was really small, but it was great to be part of one of Chris' films.

PW: Where was it filmed?

TK: It was filmed in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. We actually stayed in this little town where some of the scenes were shot in Nebraska. It was right on the border there. It was a great experience. It was much like coming here.

PW: In what respect?

TK: In the respect that you pretty much know all the players. It was my first time working with Chris. It was my first time working with Eric. I really enjoyed being able to work with Eric. I had never worked with him, and he had just done an independent feature which a friend of mine had seen. Apparently it was just an awesome film, and he had done great, great work in terms of his character. So when I got to work with him, I thought, "Wow, this guy's a great actor." It was a joy, a real joy.

PW: Is this the first time you've worked with Graham Greene since "Trial by Fire"?

TK: Yep, since "Trial by Fire."

Theater work

PW: Any other films you've done recently?

TK: I don't do an awful lot of film or television, you know. I pretty much have a normal life outside of "North of 60." I do work with a theater group back home and we do a lot of work. But in terms of film and television, again it goes back to my old story: "I never aspired to be a television actor..." It's something I love to do, but I find that working within the industry is just too difficult. Especially as an actor. You're so reliant on destiny or I don't know what you'd call it. It was just too hard a trail for me to be on.

PW: So you're just as happy not doing television full time.

TK: I'm just as happy not to be doing it full time. Also because of what I have at home, because of this theater club I have. I get my fix, you know! On a regular basis.

PW: And that company is called?

TK: Well, we go by several names. One is As the Bannock Burns Theatre Group. Our work we primarily create for ourselves, and then obviously we're creating our work for a First Nations, an aboriginal audience. And we haven't really ever stepped outside of that. It's the way we work together and the way we think. So when we create a work, we don't create it thinking, "Okay, the mass television audience or the masses."

In fact, I read this article where somebody asked Sherman Alexie, "Would you ever write a story outside of your own community?" And he said, "Well, why? We have all the drama and all the tragedy and all the comedy within our own community. Why would I need to step outside of that, of my community, to explore drama?" And I think that's exactly how we feel. We don't feel that we need to step outside of our community to explore drama. So we have great fun. One of our members is a writer, a very, very good writer. So we're actually doing one of his plays in May.

PW: What's it called?

TK: It's called "BBQ." Terrific play. So we're premiering that. We've done another show of his called "Crisis in Oka, Manitoba." So we're like an ad hoc kind of group. We don't have a company per se. We don't have operational grants for our company. We just kind of apply for grants. "Yeah, we gotta do this. You apply for a grant." "No, you apply for a grant!" So we kind of really work that way.

PW: Are you doing both acting and directing?

TK: I haven't done any directing with our group, just because my time doesn't allow it for the most part. So I mostly act or produce or stage manage or whatever. One of the things we've done is Doug [Nepinak], our writer, and I actually wrote a short film script, which I hope to produce one day. We were hoping to do that this year, but it got derailed 'cuz of circumstances. But that's definitely an exciting project down the road.

Community activism

PW: Last time we talked, you were working on a documentary, too.

TK: I was working on a documentary. Again, it was in development and it never went into production. That was with the Film Board [the National Film Board of Canada]. But since that time, I've kinda been working a lot more with First Nations communities back home in Manitoba, doing a lot of work as a videographer telling their stories.

Like one of the communities back home, they were relocated because of hydro development. They were flooded out and moved. And they're really in a process of revitalization, but at the community level that's been going on for some time. But especially with the hydro corporation [Manitoba Hydro], they're really trying to redefine their relationship. So one of the projects they're doing is a history of the community: what life was like before hydro development, what happened with hydro development, and where they are now. So I'm working with a couple of First Nations on those kinds of stories.

PW: And how will those films be used?

TK: They're not for broadcast. They're really used for the community, more in an archival sense. I am working with one community where we're doing public relations work. But again, we're not going for broadcast on that. It's used for conferences and such. Hydro development is a huge issue in Manitoba. The band I belong to was adversely affected by hydro development as well. My father was the executive director of an organization which sought compensation for hydro development. My father's life's work, practically, has been on the issue of hydro, so it's been part of my life all my life. So it was interesting to read the script [for "Another Country"]! [laughs]

(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: I was just thinking that! A lof of this movie must have seemed very familiar to you!

TK: It's a very simplified version of hydro development and those kinds of partnerships, and what it means in terms of creating new dams for the Americans. It's a huge issue now. They're looking at building a couple dams in northern Manitoba.

PW: Where is your band's land?

TK: It's about a nine-hour drive north of Winnipeg. It's kind of like six hours up and then a few hours inland. We're at the top of Lake Winnipeg, and they built a dam up there.

FH: Let me double check--your dad was executive director of...?

TK: An organization called the Northern Flood Committee, which was five First Nations in northern Manitoba which were adversely affected by hydro development around the 1960s. They had actually diverted a river, changed the water level, formed a major lake. That was sort of when they first went in and did the hydro development in the north.

PW: He's retired from that now?

TK: No, he actually works as a consultant on the whole issue still.

PW: To that same organization?

TK: No, that organization...I don't know whether it exists any more. The communities drew up one agreement, it was in 1977. It was momentous in that there was only the James Bay Agreement and then the Northern Flood Agreement. We lived in a community that actually moved, relocated when I was young. Political organizations weren't really up and running yet. The whole movement was really getting going. It was only in 1950 that Indians were allowed to gather in groups larger than three to discuss political issues, because of the Indian Act.

When you look at the history of people living under the Indian Act in Canada and how it ruled their lives, it's such a short time period that we've been organized. When the community was flooded out, there was no political body in Manitoba to advocate. The premier wasn't interested in listening to us. Lawyers weren't interested. Literally, Hydro had just given a letter of intent, and that was it. People just didn't consider First Nations people as being critical to this picture.

I don't know what's happening in the Deh Cho. Back home, I think for the most part people feel like, you know, the dams are there. Obviously there are bands, just like Lynx River, that just don't agree with it. It's like look, we've lived with this, we've dealt with it, if you want to go any further, we're going to talk for a long time. We've got a lot of talking to do. And what is this relationship really going to be. So it's definitely a huge issue.

FH: When I was reading the script for "Another Country," I thought about the parallels between it and your own interests.

TK: I was saying yesterday, "Hey, can't I stick a line in here saying, 'Shouldn't we have a referendum on this?'" [all laugh] 'Cuz it just wouldn't happen that way. You wouldn't just have the big wheels sitting there saying, "Look, you've got a training program as part of this." What does that mean? It's so simplistic it's unbelievable. But it sets the premise. It's drama.

FH: The other interesting part, though, was when we were at the Palliser [Hotel] that day...

TK: Oh yeah, Phil Fontaine! [former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations]

PW: He just happened to be there?

FH: He happened to be there for the Indian Land Commission.

TK: Yeah, he's the chairman of the Indian Claims Commission in Canada. There was a commissioners' meeting, so he happened to be there and somebody put him in the shot.

FH: He was just checking in, so we phoned up to his room and asked him if he'd be willing to have his photo taken with Dakota.

PW: Will we see him in the movie, or was it just that still photo?

FH: Well, in the end, we asked him if he'd be willing to do more, and he was. He was so cool!

PW: So he's in one of the hotel scenes?

FH: Yeah, the scene where Teevee gets arrested. He said, "I don't mind stargazing." And I said, "Neither do we!" [all laugh] He's a huge fan. He came up to Dakota and said, "Hey, chief!"

FH: Tina, do you want to talk a bit about your work with the Manitoba Chiefs?

TK: Let's go back. I love acting. Love it, love it, love it. And I don't think I could live without it. And I never had that sense just because I wasn't going to plan a career as an actor that I would have to live without it, because we have a really strong grassroots theater community, and I always knew I could be involved in that sense. I did my degree in Canadian history because I love that. I was raised in that kind of family, with a strong consciousness about what happened to us in Canada, what our relationship is to Canada, and the kind of work that's necessary for First Nations and Canada. So I've always had that commitment, too.

So to work and to start working with First Nations and then the Assembly [of Manitoba Chiefs] is just one of the things I feel completely committed to in terms of our people and whatever way I can contribute.

PW: What kind of work were you doing with them?

TK: I was doing communications work for them: a lot of video, public education strategies, and developing that kind of stuff. And I'll probably continue on with them, at least part time. So yeah, it's exciting work and I love doing that. I love that as much as I love acting! I don't love acting so much that I want to do projects that aren't interesting. Like, if it's not an interesting role, if it's not an interesting project, I'm not interested.

"Another Country"

FH: What are your thoughts on this particular story, and your take on what Michelle is up to?

PW: Michelle gets put in quite a bind this time.

TK: I think it is a bind, but it isn't really. I mean, playing Michelle, I think from the very beginning she totally and completely believes in Teevee. One of the things about her is that she's very black and white in terms of how she thinks. There's a larger grey area over the years, but again, in this kind of instance where Teevee has told here, "I didn't do it, it's not true," she believes that. And she will use whatever skills and whatever abilities and whatever connections she has as a cop to prove his innocence.

There's a point in the story where, if you want to call it a bind, it gets cagey, in that to what extent would she go in terms of protecting Teevee in terms of having to preserve her position or her ethic as a cop. And ultimately, my feeling has always been with Michelle is that if push came to shove and she had to make a decision, she'd protect people she loved. And she'd step out of being a cop if she had to. She would leave the force. If it ever came to that, she would put the people that she loved and believed in first. And I think ultimately that's what drives her.

PW: While she's trying to free Teevee, she has to pretend to be working with the Calgary cop. So she does have to hold a fine line there.

TK: Uh-huh. But she's tough, you know! It didn't feel that much of a stretch. I think literally she would do what she had to do, and push whatever envelope she had to. She's a tough cookie, and she's not afraid. There's something in her--and I think it's very true of cops--that just takes over and they do the work they have to do. And I think that's just how she is. So it didn't feel difficult in terms of choices.

PW: It sounds like Michelle is a lot more confident in Calgary this time, of course, than when she was there looking for Hannah.

TK: Yeah, definitely! But even though the situations are so different and obviously the anxiety is different, I think Michelle definitely feels like a fish out of water when she's in the city. It's just not her world, and she has no interest in being there. I don't think Michelle would ever move to the city. And I could feel that when I was there, with Michelle. I think she gets frustrated and impatient, and she's out of there as soon as she feels she has to be. It's not a place that she enjoys.

PW: Do you think that discomfort affects her police work, her instincts?

TK: No, no. Definitely not. I think she works from such a strong instinctual level...she's not an intellectual, but she's incredibly smart. Her interest is really not too much outside her own community in terms of knowledge. She's fascinated by knowledge of the land, she's fascinated by knowledge of the language, she's fascinating by knowledge of their own history. Her world is really strongly within her culture and her homeland. But she's got very strong instincts as a cop in sort of reading people, gauging situations.

I don't think she'd be fascinated by studying psychology, you know what I mean? Obviously she's had to. She had to go and train as a cop. She's lived in the city. It's not like she's ever been there. But in terms of settling her life and finding herself, this is her home. This is where she's comfortable.

PW: But at least this time in the city, she can stay more grounded and focused because she isn't dealing with her own missing child, don't you think?

TK: Right.

(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: When she was looking for Hannah, she said she couldn't feel what was going on, that she had lost her instincts.

TK: My sense is that's because it was related to that intense fear around the well-being of her daughter. That's what became so disorienting. I think if she had been looking for another kid, she'd have been on. But because it was her daughter, she was so full of fear. That's sort of the climax of "North of 60," filming that trilogy. In terms of as an actor.

PW: I hear there's a scene in this movie that was filmed at the same place.

TK: Yeah, at Prince's Island Park. I said, "Oh my god, imagine Michelle walking over this bridge. She'd stop." Michelle would have stopped and made an offering there, because there was that scene there.

PW: But in fact you don't acknowledge Michelle's connection to that location in this movie, do you?

TK: No, we don't. Not for this movie.

Aboriginals and the Canadian justice system

FH: Michelle is a fish out of water, as well as Teevee. I thought it was an incredibly poignant examination of a Native in the white justice system, and I was wondering what you thought.

TK: Huge issue. It's a huge, huge issue. I have my own personal feelings; I can't really speak for anyone else. I come from Manitoba, where we have a large, large urban aboriginal population. So it's a huge issue back home.

You know, we had the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry [AJI] back in Manitoba because of the absolute misconduct and injustice. My personal experience has been within an environment where that is real. And also, though, with a government that I think is trying, through several governments. They did bring the AJI alive, and they're looking at implementing recommendations from that. But again, it's a huge issue.

Personally, I feel it's just not our system. And sometimes as a woman I think, you know, this whole court system was developed by men, and it's so adversarial. Obviously, there are dangerous criminals and communities that fear for predators and murderers. Of course you absolutely appreciate and believe in that system. But I think certain issues, especially with aboriginal people, I think in Manitoba we make up about 60 percent of the prison population, and we're only 10 percent of the population. That statistic might even be higher; it might be 70 percent. So there's just this deep-seated, deeply ingrained into the psyche of Canada, stereotypes about Indian people that are really damaging to our society. And I think that that's the kind of work that I'm really committed to.

Having been in this position as Michelle, it's such a popular show and I'm so well known that I find it fascinating that when people think they know you, they can talk to you. Because people think they know me, they talk to me. And we can agree to disagree. I can say to people, "Well, I think this is racist," or "I think that doesn't work," and people don't get afraid or offended because they think they know me.

And I think that's just what has to happen in Canada. First Nations and Canadians have to get to know each other, and that's only going to happen through public education. But again, going back to the justice system, up until very recently...they talk about 500 years of contact, well, we've only had about 50 years of sustained contact in some remote communities, northern communities. We've lived our own way and we had our own way. And we did well. You can't go back, you can't separate. But we really have to examine preventative measures in terms of justice, in terms of health. That's what I mean about we have to know each other, we have to listen to each other.

I think one of the biggest problems is that the Canadian system is so built on a white male thinking process that it's difficult for them to acknowledge or hear anything different. What we're saying is that is has to be different. We aredifferent. We are here, and we have to create systems that work for us as well as for you. Your systems seem to work quite well for you, but they don't work for us. So it's gotta change. The aboriginal population is growing so fast, we're becoming a larger part of the urban landscape. So we really have to look at preventative measures and everything.

So this story I think in terms of...obviously there's the DNA blood match in the vehicle, so there's some really strong evidence against Teevee. But even prior to that, I think you know that it's very true, and he says it, "Indian boy getting lost in the prison." That's not unusual. I think there's a federal recommendation where the courts have to start looking at sentencing First Nations people. Like how is it they sentence them.

It's a great story. And it's so action-y! There's a lot of this great action stuff in it. And who could better do it than Dakota? He was just terrific. I can't wait to see a rough cut.

Dakota House

FH: What's your observation of our buddy Dakota stepping up to the plate in this one?

TK: Oh, I'm proud of him. It's interesting, we were standing there one day in the scene where he and Bertha take off in the helicopter to go to Calgary, and it was like, "Oh, look at our babies. They're grown up!" And that's sort of the feeling that I had on this show. "Look at our kids-they're grown up now." They're adults, and they're doing well. I mean within the context of the work we do as actors. And you kind of go, "wow!" It's so exciting, and you're so proud of them.

Absolutely I feel like a big sister to him. I told him the other day, "When I first saw you work, you were a kid, and I'm watching this kind and I'm thinking, 'How do you do it?'" He was so good, and he always has been good. He captured Teevee brilliantly. And as Teevee has changed, he's been able to as an actor, do it. He doesn't get stuck, and he's not afraid. He's not afraid to be vulnerable, and he's not afraid to do whatever he needs to as an actor. He's really terrific.

[Just then, Dakota appeared in the doorway.]

TK: I was just talking about you.

DH: I couldn't possibly imagine what you were talking about me.

PW: If you pay me enough, I could keep it off the transcript! [all laugh]

DH: Nah, let the legend continue!

10 years of "North of 60"

FH: Well, Tina, the last question is: 10 years.

TK. Yeah, 10 years. Wow. Who'd'a thunk it? I'm glad we're doing movies now. I'm glad it wasn't a series going for 10 years; I don't think I'd be here. Not to say that I don't love the show and all the people, but I really enjoy doing the movies. It's much easier, they're fun.

PW: You get to have a life.

TK: You get to have a life and then you get to come back and work with all the terrific people you've been working with since day one. It's quite remarkable. We've had a lot of fun on this shoot. Especially this last week, sort of when all the gang came in for Lynx River. We've just been having a gas.

(Click on photo for larger image.)

PW: Not that you weren't all confident in the show, but it's rare in television to have a series last this long. I think when you did the first season, you weren't even sure you'd be back for a second.

TK: Well yeah, and mostly, I think, because it wasn't set in Toronto or Vancouver. It wasn't a hip urban show. And then over and above that, it was a Native town. So it was like, who would have thought that Canada would embrace this show the way they did.

FH: Do you think there's some kind of magic formula there?

TK: You know what? I don't. I really believe, personally, in terms of some greater story, some greater force, and all of that. Because, having been in the industry a little bit and getting to know producers and people that create shows, they can put all the right players together, they can put the right cast--a big name here, or a big name there--bring the right writing team together, and the producers. You know, all of those elements that are critical. And you can do it all right and then the show doesn't work. What is that? It's hit and miss, the luck of the draw, I think. I don't know what it is.

I speak largely, too, from my own experience. It was certainly not within the thinking of my own life to be on a television series--never mind in a lead role on a television series. Ever. That just never, ever was part of the thinking of what I had for my life. So you kind of go, "What happened??" And I think having done other projects, sometimes everything just falls into place. It was meant to be. And I think that there's just a greater force.

FH: Well, "North of 60" is certainly having an impact, and we're getting to tell stories that would never get told in any other series.

TK: Yeah. And even in terms of when we talk about, "How do you do publicity for 'North of 60' again?" that's a good thing in a way, because people are so accustomed to the show. It's not something new any more.

When we did "Skins," it was interesting because they were like, "This is groundbreaking, and this cop drinks, and he's troubled," and we're like, " Canada, we've been doing that for some time." [laughs] So that's interesting when you go down into the States where they don't have this, it's not part of their fabric or whatever, they thought this was really groundbreaking work. And we're like, "Oh, a sex scene--been there, done that!" [all laugh] Not to discredit "Skins" at all; I think it's a great, terrific film. And the story was great. I can't wait to see it; Graham was amazing. But it's like, we've been doing this for 10 years now.

PW: That ring you're wearing is one of the wedding rings that Michael Horse made for Michelle and Andrew, right?

TK: Yes. You know what I realized in this show for the first time? I'd never thought of it before. Michelle never changed her last name. You know what? I think she would have. But obviously it never meant that much if I never thought of it before!

PW: Is there any mention this time of where Andrew is?

TK: No. I just figure he's doing a contract in Calgary or something.

PW: And this is basically the outfit you were wearing in the scenes you filmed in Calgary?

TK: Yeah. But I can't imagine that Michelle would ever wear these kind of pants. We have pretty hip clothes this year. Michelle is just not hip. She would have worn more like a Tanger kind of pant. Not flared. Just a more conservative kind of straight leg. But I personally like these, so I kind of stepped out of my normal rule for myself as an actress. They're Club Monaco or The Gap or something, so they're nice. I like them. Generally if I'm doing a character, I try to keep Tina out of it as much as I can. I try to stay within the character in terms of making decisions about the costumes and stuff like that. This one I didn't, though. I didn't adhere. I thought, hey, it's ten years, c'mon!

PW: Do you have any input into Michelle's wardrobe?

TK: Oh yeah, absolutely. The costume designer will bring you a whole rack of clothes, and then you kind of choose.

PW: Tina, would you mind saying hello to the fans, and I'll put the audio file with the transcript of this interview?

TK: Tansi. This is Tina Keeper, and I would like to say "thank you" to all the fans of "North of 60." It has been an incredible journey and so much fun for all of us here. And we're grateful that we've been able to do the show and that so many people have been able to enjoy it along with us. Ekosi.

[ Click here to hear that greeting.]

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Text and photos (c) 2002 Patricia F. Winter.

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Last updated 6/19/09