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Showrunners Jennifer Podemski and her colleagues were grimly unsurprised to realize how few settlers know about the Scoop.Steve Ackerman/Courtesy of Crave/APTN

Interior, early morning. Basic but cheerful reservation home on the Saskatchewan prairie, 1968. Hazy sunlight plays on the sleeping faces of two parents and three children sharing a family bed. There is love in this house.

That’s the opening shot of the new Crave/APTN series Little Bird, and “there is love in this house” is the note its creators – showrunners Jennifer Podemski and Hannah Moscovitch, along with directors Zoe Hopkins and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers – were determined to hit. Because minutes into Episode 1, that peaceful Little Bird family will be shattered by the Sixties Scoop, a Canada-wide government program in which police and child protective services kidnapped at least 20,000 Indigenous children and farmed them out for adoption to white families – cultural genocide disguised as charity.

Podemski and her colleagues were grimly unsurprised to realize how few settlers know about the Scoop, which began in the late 1950s, continued into the 1980s, and was especially aggressive in Saskatchewan, where it targeted reserves around Regina with an Adopt Indian Métis (AIM) campaign. And the systemic removal of Indigenous children continues: A crawl at the end of each episode reads, “Today there are more Indigenous children in custody than ever before.”

The six-hour series – it begins May 26, and is the first major television production to address the Scoop – toggles between 1968 and 1985, where we meet the adult Bezhig Little Bird (playwright and theatre actor Darla Contois, making her screen debut). Adopted at age five by a Holocaust survivor in Montreal (Lisa Edelstein), Bezhig is now Esther Rosenblum, Jewish, a star law student about to marry a white doctor. After overhearing the casual racism of her fiancé's relatives, Esther travels to Saskatchewan to piece together her fractured family. Because her parents and three siblings suffered in different ways, the series explores multiple facets of the Scoop while drilling down on Esther’s search for her authentic identity.

It deals with trauma frankly, “but it’s not trauma porn,” Hopkins, who is Heiltsuk/Mohawk, said in a phone interview. “We’ve seen a lot of that made by non-Indigenous people. That’s what Canadians have absorbed and think they know about us. But they’re missing the huge piece about humour, hope and love.”

Podemski, the lauded writer, producer and actor (Reservation Dogs), spent five years developing Little Bird – first at CBC, which didn’t pick up the pilot, and then for Crave/APTN (it’s Crave’s first original drama). “So many pieces of Esther’s story are connected to my life,” she said in a separate interview: Her father is Jewish, her mother Anishinaabe; her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor; she saw her mother alienated within her father’s culture; and she’s struggled with her two identities. Most chillingly, she was taken at birth from her 17-year-old unwed mother. Thankfully, her mother got her back after a few months with the help of a social worker who was about to retire (atoning for past mistakes? Perhaps).

Developing, writing and shooting Little Bird was “a brutal, traumatizing experience,” Podemski admits. “It forced me to make personal connections to survivors, to hear stories of the worst kind of violence and abuse, and to realize that this is my kin. And not just in history, in current reality. It brought up a lot of stuff. But this is the work I do. It’s my purpose.”

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Developing, writing and shooting Little Bird was 'a brutal, traumatizing experience,' Podemski admits.Steve Ackerman/Courtesy of Crave/APTN

Podemski teamed up with Moscovitch, whose play Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes won the 2021 Governor-General’s Award. “Reading the pitch pages, I had one of those heart-stopping experiences,” Moscovitch said. “I didn’t know about the Sixties Scoop. At all. My son was two at the time, and I’m Jewish – I grew up in a shul full of Holocaust survivors – so I had no trouble imagining having a child taken from me by a genocidal state.”

Moscovitch and Podemski shared their virtual writers’ room with Hopkins as well as Raven Sinclair, a survivor of and expert on the Scoop, who is Cree, Assinniboine and Saulteaux; and Nakuset Gould, whose story is achingly similar to Esther’s: A Scoop survivor who is Cree, she was adopted at age three into a Jewish home in Montreal. (Tailfeathers, the Blackfoot and Sami actor/writer/director, also helped shape the story.) Together, they reached for what Moscovitch calls “profound authenticity,” and created an opportunity for narrative activism: the idea that victims can help heal their trauma and change attitudes by telling their stories.

“I remember what it was like being Jewish in Ottawa before and after Schindler’s List came out,” Moscovitch says. “Before, people would say to me, ‘Jews are cheap, the Holocaust was exaggerated.’ They’d call me Anne Frank, derisively. After Schindler’s List, that seemed to go quiet. So I’ve lived narrative activism. What did I live it for, if not to work on projects like this, that can help?”

On her journey, Esther is called by the land from the oldest part of her memory, and Podemski knew exactly which landscape she wanted: Saskatchewan’s Qu’appelle Valley, with its evocative coulees and vast pink morning skies. Manitoba was budget-friendlier, however, so she traced a path along the Saskatchewan River, and discovered the Sioux Valley and Brokenhead First Nations. The shoot, from April 18 to June 30 – all location, no studio – was plagued by COVID, a blizzard that shut down production on day two and a flash flood that forced them to evacuate.

Even when things were going well, “there was a lot of crying, absolutely,” Podemski says. “Every single Indigenous person on the show had an experience connected to this story.” A therapist was on set daily to assist everyone – cast, crew, Indigenous and not – with the complex feelings that arose.

But the shoot was also suffused with the joy of working in the communities, with resources – human, land, spiritual – that can’t be found in a city or soundstage. Locals acted as background performers, lent their period trucks and advised on the right kind of clothesline for what Hopkins calls “a 1960s rez house.” As well, every key player participated in a training program for emerging and mid-career Indigenous creators and crew.

“To walk onto our set and see so many Indigenous faces every day was powerful for me,” Tailfeathers said. “I particularly needed it on the difficult days – to know there were people with me who implicitly understood the reality of what we were shooting. Training programs are crucial to creating narrative sovereignty. Our people need to be in front of and behind the camera to ensure that our stories are no longer appropriated or erased.”

Podemski began working in film and television 35 years ago, and she always planned to leave when there was a critical mass behind her. “There still aren’t enough of us yet,” she says. “If someone asked me to run a show about an entirely non-Indigenous thing, with non-Indigenous people, I don’t know if I’d be able to sleep at night.” She pauses, then adds pointedly, “I’ve never been asked, though, so I wouldn’t know.”

One of the strangest stranger-than-fiction aspects of Little Bird is the confluence of Indigenous and Jewish cultures, which have in common a sense of humour that arises from trauma. The fact that the victims of one genocide were marketed to the victims of another is gobsmacking. “That was one of the most shocking things I learned – that Jewish families in Montreal were a target market for our children,” Hopkins says. “We were advertised in the damn paper. Prospective parents got catalogues, like the Sears catalogue, only full of little brown children. I cried a lot when I heard that, and when I wrote about it.”

Little Bird’s child actors ranged from age 4 to 12, so Tailfeathers left it up to their parents to decide how much to share about the Scoop. She also built in lots of bonding and play time. Watching them, she had an epiphany: “The children that were taken never had the opportunity to learn their language and culture. They lost their inherent right to belong to their families and communities. But our child actors are connected to their families. They’re learning their language. To see that their experience is worlds apart from their characters’ – that gives me hope.”

“There’s something healing about watching reunions, and we show a few,” Hopkins says. “I hope people who have found their families resonate with that. I hope viewers learn how painful this still is. How we’re still searching for our loved ones and they’re searching for us. And how messed up that is, to not know where you belong. I hope for the people who never found peace, that somehow watching our characters find it helps their spirit.”

There is love in these houses. Of course there is. “But the fact that showing an audience that, in 2023, feels original?” Moscovitch says. “That is a tragedy, too.”

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