TORONTO -- As Metis actress Tantoo Cardinal prepares to receive a lifetime achievement award, she remembers what originally inspired her to begin acting more than 40 years ago: anger.

"It wasn't about a career at all -- it was about having a voice," the Edmonton-raised 64-year-old said in a telephone interview this week.

"I don't know if people really can appreciate what that experience is -- of attempted genocide, generations and generations and generations where your language is outlawed, your creativity is outlawed, anything you think or say or do is actually outlawed.

"There was a fire inside," she continued. "I had a huge rage inside about the way my people were perceived and the injustice of that.

"I have to cling to conviction, because that's my gun, you know?"

On Friday, Cardinal will receive ACTRA Toronto's Award of Excellence, a career-spanning honour previously presented to Rick Mercer, Fiona Reid and Shirley Douglas.

The award simultaneously recognizes a body of work and commitment to advocacy, and for Cardinal there was rarely much of a distinction between the two.

Whether acting in such large-scale Hollywood productions as "Dances with Wolves" and "Legends of the Fall" or indies including "Mothers&Daughters" and "Loyalties," Cardinal searched for roles that would expand the understanding of a culture she saw too often being demeaned in popular entertainment.

On the eve of her honour, Cardinal talked to The Canadian Press about her long career and ongoing activism.

CP: It's been 25 years since "Dances with Wolves" came out. What was the experience of making that film like, and seeing it go on to win seven Oscars (including best picture)?

Cardinal: It was profound on many levels. Here was a major Hollywood movie that was going to be done in the language -- that was new in itself. In the course of shooting, I think the filmmakers learned something about the Indian world and that changed the movie. It became a movie about a love affair with the community rather than the love affair between those two white people in the middle of the story.

People completely missed why it was successful and just tried to do copies. The scripts that came after that were just -- ugh, there were some rugged ones.

Had it not won (seven) Oscars, then it could still be cast aside -- because it's mostly about Indians.


CP: Four years later you starred in "Legends of the Fall." Was there much difference to you whether you were acting in big or small movies?

Cardinal: I just go where I'm invited to go and I know I'm there for a reason -- and it's not to be the best-dressed or the best-looking in the room. (laughs)

Those people were such wonderful human beings: Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn and Brad Pitt and Gordon Tootoosis. We built such a wonderful community. It's all artists, right?


CP: You were arrested with Margot Kidder in 2011 protesting the Keystone Pipeline at the White House. Do you feel your voice was heard?

Cardinal: Oh yeah. Definitely. Look, (U.S. President Barack) Obama's holding back even against (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper. I don't know what he's going to be able to do ... but there is a conscience about climate change that he talks about, and Harper doesn't.

Answers have been edited and condensed.