For the first time on Canadian television, the sordid underbelly of First Nations life will receive a comprehensive airing in a fictional series that will feature one of Squamish’s own up-and-coming actors, Swo-Wo Gabriel.
In an intense, un-muted exploration of First Nations power and politics, the dramatic series Blackstone tells the story of the fictional Blackstone First Nation, suffering from corruption of its chief and council.
The TV series Blackstone features Gabriel as young Tim Henry, who is physically and sexually abused by his uncle.
During the show, Gabriel is inspired to go to court and tell his story by veteran Vancouver actress Carmen Moore, who plays a crusading new band chief.
This was Gabriel’s first time acting on screen, thanks to his brother Keir MacPherson, who is an agent with Ocean Deep Performers.
“He helped me out getting an audition,” said 16-year-old Gabriel. “We practiced for a while and he sent me in, but I wasn’t expecting much.
“Then he called me about a week or two later and totally faked me out, sounded all disappointed, then told me I got it.”
Gabriel said he was “pretty excited” but didn’t know what to expect — before Blackstone he participated in some high school plays, but was never noticed.
“I wasn’t very good at school plays ever, but when it came to acting in real life, I said to myself, ‘This is real life so I can’t just stand here and say my lines – I have to actually act them out as if it was actually happening to me.’”
And so he did.
Gabriel grew up on the Squamish Nation reserve and when he was at an early age his father left so he said he could relate to his character’s situation.
“A bunch of Tim Henry’s life I could relate to, so when I was reading my lines I just tried to bring those emotions in beforehand.”
The first scene he was asked to do was the hardest: “I was in court telling them what my uncle did to me, and it was emotional and descriptive.”
His mom, Diana Billy, was there because Gabriel was underage and she found it difficult to hear her son describe the abuse, even though it was acting.
“I sat on the sidelines and watched every scene and tried not to cry,” she said. “He [Gabriel/Tim Henry] would be talking about what happened on bingo nights when he and his sister were abused, and he was beaten up several times in the production.
“You definitely need a box of tissues when you watch the series.”
Gabriel and Billy spent July and August in Edmonton during the filming.
“It was my first time on a plane and the farthest I’ve ever been,” he said.
Much of his lucrative summer job money was spent at West Edmonton Mall, he said, chuckling and showing off a new leather jacket.
Gabriel spent most of the time in the company of several well-known Aboriginal actors including Moore, Eric Schweig, Michelle Thrush, Nathaniel Arcand, Roseanne Supernault and Gordon Tootoosis, but he said he wasn’t intimidated.
“It felt really cool because they all told me I was really easy to act off of,” he said. “I’m still not quite sure what that means but it’s nice to be complimented. It wasn’t very intimidating. I just found it really inspiring.”
According to Ron E. Scott, who created, wrote, directed and executive produced the series, Blackstone is an uncompromising story told from an Aboriginal point of view and is in sharp contrast to sympathetic stories about First Nations people being victimized by outside forces.
In a press release, Scott said that while the dramatization can be dark and all too real, Blackstone is first and foremost a story of hope and reconciliation in its portrayal of Native people fighting for a better life in their community.
Gabriel is keen to continue his acting career on screen and hopes he’ll be noticed during the series.
“Hopefully the producers will recognize that I’m a good actor and call me for more auditions,” he said.
He’s open to any films but he enjoys the dramatic genre.
“If I were to try out an action or comedy it would be a lot harder, but this genre seems to suit me.”
Blackstone premieres Friday (Jan. 28) on Showcase and premiered Jan. 25 on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. The series unfolds over nine one-hour episodes.