Lorne Cardinal recalls the days when he and his older brother Lewis would take turns slapping each other across the face. “I didn’t hit you that hard,” one would mock, and then they’d trade blows until someone’s nose started bleeding. “We’re not right in the head,” he jokes.
It was a creative outlet, assures Lewis, consultant, community activist and NDP candidate whose physical resemblance to his actor/comic brother is so striking that people often ask him if he’s that “guy from Corner Gas.”
“I knew Lorne was going to be an actor since he was four,” he says. “He used to eat the toothpaste and, when he got caught one day, even though he had froth around his mouth, he said, in the most convincing way, ‘I didn’t do it, Lewis did!'”
For two people so alike both inside and out,it might seem odd that one would end up in politics and the other in TV. But, says Lewis, “we’re both in the business of lifting and raising the spirit of people. I do it through social architecture, and Lorne does it through acting.”
Their most striking similarity, however, is a genetic funny bone. “Our father was hilarious,” Lewis says. “He’d tell great stories and crazy anecdotes; he was very quintessentially Cree.”
“There’s just something that happens when a bunch of Cree get together,” says Lorne.”Native people in particular have no shyness in their laughter. They explode with it. I’ve been on sets, sitting with six or seven Cree guys, and we’ve been asked to move away because everyone can hear us laughing.”
Mark Twain once wrote, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” While it’s a long way from the muddy Mississippi to the grassy reserves of northern Alberta, the comic wisdom that held true for the great American humorist still works for two brothers from Sucker Creek.
Born 14 months apart, Lewis and Lorne are the eldest sons of Don A. Cardinal’s 11 children from eight marriages. The brothers stuck with their father after each subsequent divorce, though it meant being close witnesses to his lapses into depression and excessive drinking. Their father, a survivor of residential schools, spent years recovering from the abuses sustained in childhood. When he got a new job, it meant a move from Sucker Creek to Edmonton, and what he hoped would be positive change.
From Grades 1 to 12, the brothers attended 10 different schools – “white schools,” as Lorne puts it. “We were the only brown kids in the place.” Violence was a constant undercurrent, and Lewis was Lorne’s protector.
Growing up in the inner city, the boys often played in the CN yards, a shortcut to downtown they’d trespass upon. “I learned to run real fast if the yard cops were coming,” Lorne says. “I also learned that railroad flares were not meant to be tried out indoors.”
Other memories, however, aren’t so amusing. In the summer of 1977, the teenagers and their father were evicted and left homeless. They camped in various spots around town, often living in a car Don parked in a friend’s yard. “We were dirt poor,” says Lewis, who like his brother, had a full-time job by 14.
Around the same time, Lorne found refuge in a handful of comedy albums from the Edmonton Public Library. Today, he uses comedy as a healing tool through his company, Humour for Health, but back then his remedy was Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor. He’d use their famous bits in school, or modify them to make his own, and find acceptance amongst classmates. “Nobody likes to beat up the clown,” he says.
Lorne refined his comedy, but he fell in love with acting, quite accidentally. At 23, having just finished tree planting in Kamloops during British Columbia’s worst bout of unemployment in recent history, he enrolled in Cariboo College. Flipping through the course catalogue, he saw an introduction to acting.”It seemed like an easy three credits,” he says, laughing, “and a good way to meet girls.” The final project involved a one-act play. Taking his bow in front of 120 people, Lorne knew his vocational path. He spent subsequent years training as an actor, and in 1993 became one of the first aboriginal students to graduate from the University of Alberta’s drama department with a bachelor of fine arts degree.
His older brother also found his calling in his mid-20s. While hosting a CJSR radio program called Peace Pipe, which dealt with aboriginal issues and music, he interviewed Jim Thunder, organizer of the Big Bear Spiritual Run, a prophecy foreseen by elders in which six aboriginal men would run from east to west to retrieve a “sacred bundle.” The runners left Edmonton on Sept. 1, 1988, covered 4,400 kilometres in winter, and crossed the George Washington Bridge to Central Park in New York City on March 21, 1989. Lewis was among them.
“We needed to show the next generation of young people the importance of culture and identity,” he says. And he’s spent the last two decades leading by example.
Currently a Ph.D. candidate in education at the U of A, Lewis has consulted governments and organizations about aboriginal issues. For his anti-racism work and his role as a human-rights activist, he received a National Achievement Foundation Award for Public Service.
“He’s inspiring to people,” says Lorne. “After a conversation with him, you come away feeling energized.”
If you were to climb up the Cardinal family tree, you’d find a branch of Canadian aboriginal policy-making at every stage of government. In fact, their great-great grandfather, Moostoos, was centrally involved in the creation of Treaty 8, which is now the largest treaty in the western hemisphere. Lewis entered politics because community elders asked him to, and, he says, “I was raised with the traditional idea that when the community asks you to do something, it’s probably the highest honour you can get because they’re trusting you to do something for them.”
He adds, “I believe indigenous people have a huge amount to contribute within the social structure of Canada and, of course, within this city.”
That’s a message Lorne is trying to send in the arts, too. Though he’s best known as Sergeant Davis Quinton on Corner Gas, arguably the most successful Canadian sitcom in history, averaging a million viewers per episode before it signed off after six seasons, Lorne recently collaborated with the National Arts Centre to co-direct and star in a production of King Lear set in 17th- century Canada with an all-Aboriginal cast. He’s also the producer of a behind-the-scenes documentary about the production.
“The effect that native people have when seeing their own kind onstage and onscreen is huge,” he says. “It gives them pride and ownership and a little glimmer of hope.”
For Aboriginal kids with stars in their eyes, there are few role models like him. “I talk to kids everywhere,” Lorne says, “about what it takes to be a successful person: There’s no American Idol way to success. I stress the importance of training and education. I share stories about my life, about going through hard times, and then I tell them about making good choices. I tell them that if a guy from Sucker Creek can make it, they can, too.”
Though there hasn’t been a new episode of Corner Gas since 2010, to many, Lorne is still the farcical Sergeant Davis. But, one day, his older brother predicts with a smile, people will stop Lorne in the street and ask, “Hey, are you that guy from Parliament Hill?”