Avonlea Collins says she didn’t know what kind of show it was that she was applying to when she saw the advertisement last spring, but decided to give it a go anyways.
“We didn’t hear any specifics about the show, you just applied if you considered yourself to be an adventurous, outspoken Canadian, which I think I am, so I signed up,” said Collins from her home in Chilliwack.
The show she was applying for, Collins would learn, was for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN), and it was going to be a reality, documentary-style show, although the final details weren’t delivered until after cast members had agreed to be a part of the project.
”None of us knew what the show was going on until the end, as (the show’s producers) weren’t informative about the specifics (at the start),” explained Collins.
Once selected for the show—First Contact—Collins says cast members were filled in on its purpose and the stories producers were hoping they’d have the opportunity to tell through 28 days of shooting in various locations across the country.
“At first, I was a little worried at the beginning because you’re (always) a little (scared) about how you’re going to be portrayed,” continued Collins.
“But I took that risk, jumped in two feet first, and I’m really happy I did,” said Collins emphatically. “I feel like I have received a really positive outcome from the whole experience.”
However, as they headed into the taping of the show, Collins says she struggled accepting the notion that she possessed stereotypes about Canada’s indigenous population.
“I grew up in Pemberton, and all my high school life I was in school with indigenous kids and white farm kids,” said Collins. “There wasn’t a lot of diversity, but it didn’t matter. We all grew up together (and) had slumber parties. I didn’t think I had stereotypes, but through this I learned that I do.
“The biggest (stereotype I had) was believing indigenous people are receiving things from the government that I wasn’t, and it felt unfair. (But) through my journey I learned that wasn’t the case what so ever: the money they receive comes from their bands from a trust that’s (not) created (from our tax dollars).
“But now I have a (more complete) understanding of the situation and a drive to learn more,” added Collins.
A exploration into indigenous culture in Canada, First Contact is a three-part series narrated by George Stroumboulopoulos, a well-known Canadian TV personality and social justice activist.
Following the personal journeys of Collins and five other Canadians as they tour indigenous communities from coast to coast, First Contact illustrates the dichotomous relationship still surrounding indigenous communities in an attempt to challenge the perceptions and prejudices about a culture few get to fully experience.
However, for Collins, shortly after the cameras started following her around the communities they were visiting, she experienced an epiphany: “We became able to ask nearly any question we wanted the answer to … so it made it so I was able to learn more freely, and (the stereotypes fell away) pretty quick when those questions started getting answers.”
Travelling throughout B.C., the show also went into the heart of indigenous communities in Winnipeg, Nunavut, Alberta, and Ontario.
“I couldn’t thank the communities more for (their openness and acceptance of us),” said Collins. “They truly opened up about their hardest times, which is one of the hardest things to do.”
Taping for First Contact took place over the course of 28 days earlier this spring, and during that month, Collins was not only away from both her husband and two small sons, but her contact with them was limited due to the regions they were visiting, and the director’s desire to have them live their experiences on camera, not on the phone talking to their families back home.
However, Collins says it was worth sacrificing that time with her family.
“It was bigger than me and them,” said Collins of her decision to join the show’s cast. “Now they’ll be able to look back and say, ‘Hey! That’s my mom and she did that for us!’”
More-so, Collins says it was also an incredible personal journey and she’s glad for the experience. “We went to a community in Nunavut that I was in awe of,” said the stay-at-home-mom of two.
“The beauty of it and their community, and the way they interacted with each other: it’s not about trading for money or anything, it was about uplifting each other.
“They only looked at their neighbour’s plate to make sure they had enough, not to see what they can take. They’re all incredible human beings, and I hope others can see their culture for what it truly is, not what they may think it is.
”I really just hope other people can see (the show) and see something of themselves in me and apply my learning and experience back to themselves and ask, ‘Would I have gained the same thing?’”
First Contact is a three-night television event, starting Sept. 11 at 7 p.m., comprising three episodes and a two-part reunion special featuring three of the show’s indigenous hosts along with the cast members who will reflect on their experiences before a live studio audience.