Robert Carter

Distinguished Alumni Award

From Class Clown to Actor, Director and Producer

Well known for Corner Gas, Lorne Cardinal’s career has made him an Indigenous role model and advocate

By Therese Kehler and Geoff McMaster

Robert Carter
October 26, 2022 •

To hear Lorne Cardinal, ’93 BFA, tell it, he didn’t know how to walk, talk, read or even breathe like an actor before he started the U of A’s fine arts program.

The Cree actor from the Sucker Creek First Nation in Alberta had been on stage often enough at that point to know he had found his calling — but not enough to know what he didn’t know.

At the time, he was rehearsing for “his first paid gig,” a play by poet, writer and eventual filmmaker Alison McAlpine that involved lots of “clown work and mask work and body work.” He assumed a bachelor of fine arts would give him more exposure to avant-garde performance styles.

“And when I got there it was like, ‘Nope. We don’t do that kind of theatre,’” he recalls. “‘We do classical theatre training. … You have to learn how to walk first.’”

Four years later, as the program’s first Indigenous graduate, Cardinal had developed those skills along with a special talent for finding the truth in the roles he plays. His authenticity is a big part in his success in more than 100 stage and screen roles over the last four decades. In addition to his portrayal of the loveable Davis Quinton on Corner Gas, he (or his voice) have been in the TV series Molly of Denali and FBI: Most Wanted. His theatre performances have included an all-Indigenous production of King Lear at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre and the Edmonton staging of The Tempest performed by a mix of deaf and hearing actors.

“I start with the script and I start reading, working my way through it. And then I pore over every description, everything the writer says, everything the characters say,” Cardinal says.

“I don’t think I’d be doing half the stuff if it wasn’t for the BFA training. It was the best tool box I could ever ask for.”

To have Lorne Cardinal on your drama team is to have a star player who makes everyone else better by his constant efforts to crack a scene, to find the humour and the pathos, and to reveal the human heart (for good or bad).
Bradley Moss, ’95 MFA, artistic and executive director, Theatre Network

Schools of hard knocks

Cardinal’s relationship with formal education wasn’t always so positive. His earliest memories involve nuns at the day school in Fort Vermilion, Alta., who tied his thumb to a belt loop to stop him from writing with his left hand. His dad, a residential school survivor who raised Cardinal and his brother, sent the boys to schools where they were the only brown kids. “It led to a lot of fights and racist experiences at a young age,” Cardinal says. “But [dad] knew that if we were gonna live in this system, we had to learn how that system works.”

Acting while Indigenous

Today, Cardinal has drawn a firm line against roles that are blatant attempts to add brown faces to the scenery. “If it’s a stereotype of a Native person, if it doesn’t drive the scene, if the character doesn’t have an important role in the story it’s telling, I’m not interested,” he says. Instead, he cherishes opportunities like his 1993 role in Black Elk Speaks, a historical retelling of the near-extinction of American Indians. Newly graduated, Cardinal was one of 23 Indigenous actors hailing from 23 different nations; rehearsals were marked by periods of raw emotion as scenes replayed the true stories of many of the actors’ ancestors. “We would stop and we’d sit and we’d smudge and we’d pray and we’d talk about it,” Cardinal recalls. “And then we’d get up and we’d go back to work.”

The University of Alberta Alumni Awards recognize outstanding graduates who lead the way around the globe. See the complete list of 2022 recipients. Who should we recognize next? Nominate a U of A grad you think should be celebrated. Deadline is 11:59 p.m. MST on Dec. 15, 2022.  

Go Deeper

More about Lorne Cardinal, a recipient of a 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Just for laughs

A shy youngster, Cardinal became the class clown, stealing jokes from comedy records to make friends and fit in.

Stage fright

Cardinal joined the backstage crew in high school rather than audition for a part. “I was close to the action but I didn’t have to go out there and speak.”

BFA beginnings

Jean-Pierre Fournier, ’73 BFA, ’98 MFA, a U of A stage combat instructor, remembers Cardinal well. “He worked like a fiend and produced, and he did so with generosity, commitment, humility and responsibility to his work and classmates. It did not do any harm that he was charming, well-built and a dashing young man with a marvelous sense of humour.”

Scottish curse

Among Cardinal’s Shakespearian credits is a close call with Macbeth’s ghost. Folklore around the Scottish play says that if Macbeth’s name is spoken aloud inside a theatre, bad luck will follow. Cardinal recalls how a doubter boldly uttered the name during a cast party inside a theatre — and a huge speaker immediately crashed onto the dance floor. “We did the ritual of going out, turning around three times and being asked to be let back in. And then we shut it down before anything else happened.”

Role reversal

Cardinal’s role as Davis Quinton on Corner Gas was originally written as a serious supervisor to police rookie Karen Pelly. “Somehow we flipped that, where I was the flighty sergeant-in-charge and she was a down-to-earth, grounded rookie. And it just seemed to work that way.”

Sun Dancer

Among Cardinal’s awards and accolades is a hard-earned title of Sun Dancer. Cardinal completed a four-year commitment to the arduous sacred ceremony in honour of his father, Don, who died in 2008.

We at New Trail welcome your comments. Robust debate and criticism are encouraged, provided it is respectful. We reserve the right to reject comments, images or links that attack ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation; that include offensive language, threats, spam; are fraudulent or defamatory; infringe on copyright or trademarks; and that just generally aren’t very nice. Discussion is monitored and violation of these guidelines will result in comments being disabled.

Latest Stories