Interview: Adam Beach Carries an Uplifting Message to Canada's North on Arctic Air

The actor hopes his story will inspire young people just as he was inspired by stories of his First Nation ancestors.

By , Columnist

Photo credits BStrauss/CBC

Adam Beach as Bobby Martin in Arctic Air

Actor Adam Beach is proud of his heritage and with good reason. The star of the Canadian drama series Arctic Air is a member of the Dog Creek Lake Manitoba First Nation and grew up on a reservation north of Winnipeg in Canada. There he experienced a tough childhood, becoming an orphan at eight years old and a self-confessed bad boy thereafter. These days, however, his beaming smile testifies to how his circumstances have changed.

Beach credits the traditions and values instilled in him by his community for guiding him along a path that has led to a successful career as an actor. Aside from getting him on board Arctic Air, that journey has included recurring roles in hit shows such as Law & Order: SVU, Big Love and Combat Hospital as well as parts in several movies, including Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Cowboys & Aliens.

TMR caught up with Beach during the filming of the third season of Artic Air, which is currently airing on Canada's CBC network. In the show Beach plays Bobby Martin, co-owner of a small airline that provides transportation and, as of the current season, search and rescue services to hard-to-reach communities in Canada's Northwest Territories. Beach talked about how the series has resonated with his past experiences. He also discussed his hope that the premise of the show connects audiences with the challenges and triumphs that are part of everyday life for communities like the one he grew up in.

How did you get into acting?

High school. Me and my friends were kind of messing around and it was the only class that allowed all my friends in one group together in one class. The other ones all split us up.

You experienced a lot of adversity growing up but now you are doing something you evidently love. What got you through those difficult times and put you on the path to success?

What got me through difficult times was the teachings of traditional knowledge and the traditions of my people. Learning about the eagle feather, learning about the grandfathers in sweat lodges, learning and understanding that there's an ancestral timeline that hasn't changed and that is available to us to use for bringing harmony into our lives.

Can you give a bit of background on the history and culture you are talking about?

The reservation I'm from is two hours north of Winnipeg. It's really cold in the winter, beautiful in the springtime and summer and in the history of the area and of the Saulteaux First Nation. We are called the Eastern Woodland Indian. We always moved around but eventually that became our treaty land and that's where we reside now.

Arctic Air doesn't make your First Nation background any more of a big deal than the various nationalities of other characters on the show. Is that something that appealed to you?

Yes. The reason why I loved the show was it was going to cater to the northern communities. As you know, in the northern communities of Canada there's a lack of infrastructure, whether it's social, whether it's economic. A lack of homes, lack of education, lack of water and resources. And I found that there's a high rate of suicide in the communities.

I knew that in the show it would bring the image of Adam Beach into the eyes of our younger generation and kind of give them a sense of understanding, leadership, hope. And also to not give up on themselves and [instead] say, "Hey, I want to watch Adam Beach before I think of taking my life." I found I could directly link with them through this wonderful character of Bobby Martin who is a leader, who's successful, who's connected with the land and his people and is struggling to maintain who he is and the strength of who he is by protecting his family and friends.

Is he a symbol of the difficulties many First Nations people face in preserving traditional ways in the modern world?

Well, I think the show kind of brings it all together and makes it all fit because when you go up into these communities they have businesses. Like Yellowknife, it has businesses: it has gold, it has diamonds. They are quite wealthy up there and also quite poor but they all work together. I think that's a part of the north that nobody gets to really experience and we did a good job of really showing people that part of the north.

It seems that in the show you get to be yourself rather than having a writer's image of someone from a First Nation imposed on you.

Yeah, the character Bobby Martin I relate to because Bobby Martin left Yellowknife for Vancouver because his father was missing. He couldn't deal with that so he left to get an education and then he came back. Growing up I lost my parents when I was eight and I had to find myself. Then acting eventually took me out to visit the world to learn and understand and better educate myself. Now I feel like I keep returning home to give my experiences to all the communities and to help them out, to instill that hope in their lives. There is a world out there: challenge yourself and let you passion motivate you and go seek it out.

Do you meet many kids in these communities who aspire to get into acting like you did?

Yeah, there's a lot of young actors out there and they're trying to get started and there's some good communities that are really supportive on a lot of levels. Then there's some where the infrastructure is just not well put together. Lack of funds and isolation keep them away. So I'm trying to better connect them. Recently I started the Adam Beach Film Institute because I want to prove that we can create an entertainment social-economic structure and financial opportunity by teaching these kids that they have an opportunity to learn and come and work in the entertainment business.

On your Twitter account you also mention that you are a motivational speaker.

I've been helping with suicide awareness, prevention, and health and wellness throughout the last 15 years, encouraging young lives to take better care of themselves. My story growing up is an experience of sexual abuse and abandonment issues from losing my parents who died two months apart. My mom was hit by a drunk driver when she was eight months pregnant and died in the ditch in front of my house so I tell people don't drink and drive. My dad drowned when he was drinking two months later.

I have a good message because I got into gangs as a kid and did bad things and turned my life around at 16 when cultural traditional teachings took me out of my suicidal thoughts and gave me a better path. Acting was a passion that was a thread of all of it that allowed me to have a purpose and share my experiences on screen or personally when I do these motivational speaking things. I just want to open the doors for people to see that they have a bright future.

Arctic Air is broadcast on CBC in Canada on Tuesday's at 9pm ET.

More information on the Adam Beach Film Institute can be found here.

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Michael Simpson is a freelance writer, editor, presenter, researcher, instructor, gadget freak and sci-tech consultant based in British Columbia’s beautiful Okanagan Valley. Formerly from the UK, he’s converted from tea to coffee and written and presented on film, TV, science, nature, technology,…

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