He’d felt the strange woman’s approving gaze throughout the day as he filmed the centennial celebration at Nelson House, Man.
But Sean Parenteau, one of the first-ever graduates of Red River College’s Aboriginal Broadcast Training Initiative (ABTI), had no idea she’d give him the answer to a question he’d pondered since childhood.
“That thing you’re doing with your camera, that’s your gift in life,” the woman said, after tapping Parenteau on the shoulder. He thanked her and asked for her name. Instead, she hugged him, then walked away.
“I turned and looked at my camera,” says Parenteau, “and just started crying.”
Rewind the tape 31 years, to find five-year-old Parenteau in Duck Bay, Man. — a Métis community about 450 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg — in the throes of a mysterious ailment that caused him to have visions of blue whales and killer whales, both of which represent Mother Earth’s clans.
A local Elder named Nora helped cure him. When he was 11, he went to visit her at her cabin in the woods, hoping she could tell him what had happened. She told him he had a gift he was too young to comprehend, but in time he’d get it back.
The Elder died years later when Parenteau was 19; he never got the chance to talk with her again. Of that fateful woman from the Nelson House shoot, he now says, “I believe it was Nora the Elder that had passed on, coming back to give me my gift.”
Today, Parenteau continues to fulfil his destiny: to be a storyteller for Indigenous people in Canada. As part of the team at Strongfront TV, a Winnipeg-based video production company that helps give a voice to Canada’s Indigenous communities, he has close to 20 years of experience in broadcasting and an impressive resume, to boot.
Through the lens of his video camera, he’s told hundreds of stories — many of them award-winning — and documented major national and international events like the 1999 Pan Am Games. And through his experiences, he’s found another purpose for his voice as a motivational speaker within his community.
But it’s his recent work helping record statements from survivors of the residential school system that resonates most with the 42-year-old father and stepfather.
“Being part of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada) helps me heal,” says Parenteau. “It helps me understand why our people are the way they are. We were uneducated. We weren’t even allowed to vote until 1960. I carry all that on my back. I carry it in a humble way.”
Parenteau says he’s determined to be one of the “game changers”: young, creative Indigenous people who teach Canada and the world about their history and culture. And he imagines a future where Indigenous people take leadership roles in all levels of government across the country.
“It’s time to move on and for us to prosper,” says Parenteau. “And, hey, if Obama can be president, we can have an Indigenous prime minister one day, as well.”
If ambition helped Parenteau get where he is today, it’s the inspiration of his mentor — Jim Compton, a one-time local news reporter and ABTI instructor at RRC — that kept him on his path.
As Parenteau recalls, “Jim was the first Aboriginal journalist on CBC News with braids. He was the guy that broke all the barriers. I have such a huge respect for this man. He really shaped me and taught me that I should always be proud of myself and walk in a dignified manner as a representative of our people.”
Not only did Compton teach Parenteau at RRC, he also gave him his first two gigs: filming the North American Indigenous Games in B.C., and documenting Phil Fontaine’s ascent to national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 1997 for a documentary titled Making of a Leader.
Growing up in Duck Bay with the traditions of his Ojibway mother, Agnes, and Cree father, Randy Mercredi, Parenteau fondly recalls working trap lines and fishing with his grandfather. Though he relocated to Winnipeg at 13 when his mother took a new job in the city, he’s never lost touch with his roots.
Today, Parenteau is working on a film that’s close to his heart: Hunting with Kokum which follows his grandmother, Gladys Mercredi and grand uncle, Fred Nabess, on their 42nd consecutive moose hunt.
As for the future, Parenteau wants to continue growing Strongfront TV’s reputation, while teaching his daughter, Ava, and four stepchildren, Nick, Cody, Angel and Shawn, to be proud of who they are and where they come from.
“I see a bright future as long as I can guide my stepchildren and my daughter to a more positive place in life,” he says. “I’ll be happy if I can do that. I’ll be truly happy.”