Cultural critic and Indigenous rights advocate Jesse Wente on turning your passion into your career

Photo of Jesse Wente
Cultural critic and Indigenous rights advocate Jesse Wente is the new director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office (photo by Jackie Shapiro)

For Jesse Wente, the cultural critic and Indigenous rights advocate, giving back to the community is a top priority.

"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," he says. "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."

Wente’s family comes from Chicago and the Serpent River First Nation in Ontario. He is the longtime film and pop culture critic at CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, and has had a long association with the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where until recently he was director of film programs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. There he curated the landmark film program First Peoples Cinema: 1,500 Nations, One Tradition and its companion gallery exhibition, Home on Native Land.

He has also been a film programmer for TIFF and for the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Festival. An Aboriginal arts advocate and passionate spokesperson for inclusion, Wente served as president of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest Indigenous performing arts company.

In 2017, he was appointed to the Canada Council for the Arts. Last month, he was appointed director of Canada’s Indigenous Screen Office. Wente graduated with an honours bachelor's degree in cinema studies from U of T in 1996.

Arts & Science spoke with Wente at the 2018 Next Steps Conference, an intensive two-day career exploration, education and networking conference for students in the Faculty of Arts & Science, recent graduates and alumni, where he delivered the keynote about pursuing one’s passion and turning it into a career.

What ignited your passion for film?

Star Wars – it was 1977, and that was the first movie I saw. It turned into an obsession.

Why did you choose to study cinema at U of T?

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 and how to express 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.

Where did your programming career start?

I ran the Victoria College Film Society with a friend. They gave me free reign in the facilities and a budget to rent prints. We blew our entire budget screening Superfly and Shaft. We showed Superfly out of sequence – we started with reel 3 – and no one noticed! We ended up programming the rest of the year using films from the U of T collection. That’s where my programming career really started.

What was the best thing that happened to you at U of T?

Meeting my wife, Julie (Ouellon-Wente). We’ve been together 24 years. She’s been my greatest champion; we’re partners in life. I couldn’t have done what I did without her – including landing my first job.

So how did you land your first job after graduation?

In between graduating from U of T and heading to Humber, I needed a job. It was Julie who pointed out that there was an internship at CBC Radio that was funded by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (now Indspire). Radio seemed the furthest thing from movies, and an odd choice for me. As my mom has said, as a teenager, I didn’t speak for seven years. I was the associate producer for radio syndication. Then while I was there, they asked me to fill in as the film critic for Metro Morning. So while Andy Barrie, who was the host, would read the Globe and Mail, I got paid for saying how films sucked. I thought it was just going to be a temporary gig, but 21 years later I’m still working at the CBC.

Basically, I was in the right place at the right time, and I took a job I didn’t want – I didn’t want to be a film critic but a filmmaker. After that, I ended up jumping around a lot on short-term contracts, until finally I got a real job as associate producer at the Arts Report with Michael Crabbe, and I worked with Eleanor Wachtel on her show, The Arts Today.

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?

And what was your answer?

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. I was able to piece everything together to present a fuller package that made me a great candidate for a job – like running a movie theatre at TIFF.

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.

What’s made you so successful at being a film commentator?

I’m an insomniac. I can watch 1,500 movies a year.

You’ve had a dream career, not just dream jobs. What is your advice to students and young alumni as they consider their post-university future?

Understand what you are passionate about, and be prepared for it to change as your life changes and as you get more experience. Don’t commit yourself to a single path. Experiment a bit, and do not be afraid of risk, of disruption. That way you can put yourself in a position for a job you didn’t even know was a job.

Be true to who you are and the life you want to lead. Know what you value, what is close to your heart. Embrace change, because it’s constant and you shouldn’t fear it as long as you stay true to yourself.

Hold to that and your happiness quotient may increase. Happiness can be a real struggle – I’m not a happy person; it has been a journey for me to find a balance with the whole of my life. But the footprints we leave will be more impactful if we’re happy.

Thinking back on your extraordinary career, what was one of the most meaningful or transformative moments for you?

There are so many. Some that are trivial that I will nevertheless cherish forever. But to be honest, it was that five minutes on the air talking about cultural appropriation with Matt Galloway. It was the most personal piece of radio I’d ever done, and it changed my life. Some for the bad, but mostly for the good. And I’ve only come to understand that because of what people who were listening to the show have told me – not the ones, obviously, who sent death threats. I thought, if my community was pleased, then it was worth whatever I had to go through. I admit I have a conflicted relationship with that moment.

Last year, you were appointed member of the board of the Canada Council for the Arts. What do you hope to achieve during your tenure?

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. Culture change is what will allow some of the other changes that need to happen to happen.

And to be humble about why I’m there. It’s not about what I want to accomplish, but about what I can accomplish on behalf of others. I sit in a room with very powerful people who can make change. That’s also why I spoke tonight at the Next Steps Conference. Because someone in that audience has the capacity to make change, and I want to encourage that.

As an Indigenous rights and Aboriginal arts advocate, what are your thoughts on how can we as individuals and a society can get better at fostering the kind of change we need?

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.

It’s hard in Canada to have a real discussion about the return of Indigenous land without a lot of storytelling before that to get Canadians to a point where they understand why that’s important.

And frankly, I think we’re getting there quite rapidly. Certainly in Canada, there have been some very constructive debates, putting to rest some old ideas. I think there’s now a big appetite now to hear these stories.

You believe that inclusion is a benchmark and pathway to success. What should organizations look at for increasing inclusion and diversity?

If you have any consciousness of global migration and demographics, you will understand that your customers 10 to 15 years from now, or your employees, or whomever you’re serving, are unlikely to come from the same places as those you have today. And if you’re not already thinking about that and being ahead of the curve, then you’re behind it. So organizations, businesses, institutions all have to understand that the communities that are feeding your organization are changing faster than you are reacting to that change.

Inclusion is the better word. And you just have to start. The most effective way is to hire differently. As a friend of mine, Ry Moran (director of the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation), says, nature is diverse. You look at a forest, and there’s not just one kind of plant or tree. And if you come across an area that has only one type, then that’s where there’s a problem. Diversity is the natural order of things. It’s the same in a forest, a city, a country. People, ideas, energies, access to communities – if you’re not diversifying your audiences that could be because you are not diversifying your staff. And if you’re resisting diversity, you’re resisting the natural order.

What is the role of leadership in this context?

Leaders don’t acknowledge what they don’t know often enough. One of the real keys to leadership is understanding what you don’t know, who you don’t know, where you don’t know, and surrounding yourself with people who do know those things. You’ll have a much better organization and success if you do it that way. And that means you have to be inclusive; you have to figure out who’s not in the room, because that’s who you’re not going to serve.

So how do you view your role as a leader in Indigenous rights advocacy in Canada?

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.

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