When the federal government established the Indigenous Screen Office last year, it was the culmination of years of advocacy, something its first director, Jesse Wente (Innis 1996), is quick to point out.
Wente, a member of the Serpent River First Nation, previously worked as a film programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and a film critic for CBC Radio, where he remains a regular contributor. However, the bulk of his days — and many nights, too — are spent working to increase the representation of Indigenous people in the screen sector.
“This is my first time growing an organization and it’s exciting and exhausting,” said Wente. “It’s certainly fulfilling work. It holds real potential to bring change for our people within a specific sector and will benefit all Canadians as more Indigenous stories are shared.”
As a U of T cinema studies major, Wente expected to be telling those stories himself, but an internship with CBC after graduation took his career in a different direction. Soon, he found himself reviewing films, rather than writing and directing them himself.
“Be open to all kinds of pathways,” Wente said. “Once you know your passion, there are lots of different ways to explore it that can give you a fruitful, fulfilling career.”
As an Indigenous man in an industry with few of them, “I’ve always been quite conscious of not allowing myself to be pigeon-holed by who I am.”
As a result, Wente came late to advocacy, but has been strategic about giving back to his community.
“For a long time, I wasn’t working directly for the community, but I knew I would do something special for them when I had the most to offer,” Wente said. “Not until I could give the most back did I take a job with an Indigenous institution.”
No matter where his career takes him, he thinks of U of T as his launching pad: the place where he met his wife and learned both critical thinking and a variety of extracurricular skills that have served him well.
“U of T still holds a very special place in my heart,” Wente said.