Interview by Diana Kuprel
Jesse Wente (Cinema Studies, 1996) is one of Canada’s highest-profile Indigenous voices—director of Telefilm Canada’s new Indigenous Screen Office, long-time CBC Radio film critic, and formerly a programmer and curator at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since he arrived at the University of Toronto in 1992, his life has been a series of firsts, which has only strengthened his sense of responsibility and desire to give back.
Arts & Science spoke with Wente at the 2018 Next Steps Conference, which engages alumni to help prepare students for a successful transition to life after graduation, and where he gave the keynote address.
DK: How did you come to study cinema at the University of Toronto?
JW: My intention was to become a filmmaker, but first I wanted to understand what makes a good movie. I enrolled in the cinema studies program at Innis College to gain skills in critical thinking. After that, I had planned to go to Humber College to get my hands on filmmaking equipment—remember this was the pre-digital era. I never did.
DK: How did you land your first job after graduation?
JW: Between graduating from U of T and heading to Humber, I needed a job, and there was an internship at CBC Radio that was funded by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (now Indspire). While I was there, they asked me to fill in as the film critic for Metro Morning. I thought it was just going to be a temporary gig, but 21 years later I’m still working at the CBC.
I have to say, the fact that the internship was funded by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation was significant. My mother made it very clear to me that it came with a responsibility. She instilled in me the idea of reciprocity: to never take anything without giving something in return. I always had in my mind, how will I pay back to the community?
DK: And what was your answer?
JW: As soon as I could, I started volunteering on boards. There was an incredible need for Indigenous representation at the time, even on the boards of Indigenous organizations. I became the president of the board of a theatre company, even though I didn’t understand plays. The job was to manage the company, craft the strategy, deal with the finances, hire the staff. And I was able to build a career that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to because I gained complementary skills through volunteering.
But I feel that my time to give back is greatest now. I have built a big enough career in the mainstream sector. I have access to places that most people don’t. In addition to being the first member of my Ojibwe family to attend university and the first Indigenous student to graduate from cinema studies, I was the first nationally syndicated Indigenous columnist. I say this because I feel strongly that the only reason being first matters is so you can open doors wide enough for numbers two to infinity to come through.
DK: Last year, you were appointed to the board of the Canada Council for the Arts. What do you hope to achieve during your tenure?
JW: It’s an exclusive space—the largest arts funding body in the country—and being granted access to it will enable me to speak truth to power, to try to influence culture. My goal is to be a voice in the room, to be an advocate for Indigenous people and Indigenous sovereignty. That’s what I’m in it for—not to pad my CV, but culture change.
DK: As an Indigenous rights advocate, what are your thoughts on how we as individuals and a society can get better at fostering the kind of change we need?
JW: Storytelling is key. We struggle with a storytelling problem. With Indigenous people, the theft of our stories is inextricably linked to the theft of our land, the theft of our bodies. I think it’s harder to accept the theft if you actually know the people—and you get to know them through storytelling. A function of that is who gets to tell those stories. After all, you can’t expect society to change if we have the same storytellers. In Canada, we need to empower Indigenous people to tell Indigenous stories. Doing so will ultimately create the conditions by which misrepresentation is simply unacceptable.
DK: How do you view your role as a leader in Indigenous rights advocacy in Canada?
JW: Leader? I wouldn’t say I’m a leader. It’s my obligation to do these things. I’ve led a privileged life and I think privilege is only worth having if you extend it beyond yourself and see it as a pathway to give back as much as you can.
TOP: Jesse Wente at the Next Steps Conference.