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Eric Peterson among laureates for Governor General's lifetime achievement award

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TORONTO - When Canadian acting legend Eric Peterson first heard he'd been chosen as a laureate of this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, he immediately thought of his Saskatchewan roots.

"My first instinct was, 'I was sorry my parents weren't alive,'" the beloved and bespectacled stage and screen star said in a recent telephone interview.

"They worried about my career being an actor so much, and they were both fiercely Canadian, so I think they would have taken that as sort of payback for a lot of the worrying they probably did about me."

On Wednesday, the five-time Gemini Award winner was announced as one of six winners of the lifetime achievement award that offers each recipient $25,000, contributed by the Canada Council for the Arts.

The other recipients are violinist Andrew Dawes, musician/producer Daniel Lanois, filmmaker Jean Pierre Lefebvre, actress Viola Leger, and dancer Menaka Thakkar.

Meanwhile, Jean Pierre Desrosiers will receive the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts, and filmmaker/actress Sarah Polley will get the National Arts Centre Award.

The laureates will be honoured at various events in Ottawa from May 30 to June 1.

"It's a huge honour to me because I've worked here," said Peterson.

"That's the other thing, it's a big reminder of how long one has worked, because this isn't an award for an emerging artist. This is an award for a submerging artist," the wisecracking 66-year-old added with a laugh.

The deeply humble performer and arts advocate also admitted he thought he wasn't deserving.

"Eric Peterson, the real man, real guy here, is going, 'Why are they giving that to me? I just do what I do, and what I do, to me, doesn't seem that special,'" he said.

"I'm highly critical sometimes of what I do and the way I do it."

Peterson's humility perhaps comes from his notion that he didn't choose acting, it chose him.

Growing up in Indian Head, Sask., it just wasn't a career he or many around him thought of, he explained.

"I didn't know anybody who knew anybody who was an actor or came close to it," said Peterson. "Seven degrees of separation? There must have been 1,000, it seemed, if you lived in Saskatchewan.

"So it just wasn't on the career board."

It was in university that Peterson came to know a group of female actors in the drama department, which was low on male members. They asked him to audition, which he did, and thus spawned his performing arts career.

One of Peterson's early and most successful theatre projects was "Billy Bishop Goes to War," which he co-wrote, co-composed and co-performed with John Gray.

The two have acted out and updated the multi-award-winning musical — about a Canadian First World War fighter pilot — at three distinct times in their lives.

"That's been so significant for John and I, as the old friends that we are," said Peterson. "But also the national recognition for that — going back and forth across the country, and doing it again at three different times — that kind of connection the Canadian audience makes to it is, in the end, really all I ever wanted.

"That is the real reward for me. It's not money, it's not fame, it's this connection."

Peterson has also connected with film and television audiences, in projects including "Street Legal," "Slings and Arrows," "Traders," and "This is Wonderland."

And, of course, he played curmudgeonly Oscar Leroy on the much-beloved prairie sitcom "Corner Gas," which was shot in Saskatchewan and ended in 2009.

"Here I was looking out at this scenery that I had enjoyed as a child and grew up in this and thinking, 'My goodness, isn't this something?'" he said, recalling his first few days on the "Corner Gas."

"It was like coming full-circle. Forty years ago I had left this place to become an actor and here I was, back acting in it."

Peterson has been a strong advocate for homegrown productions through his work with the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA).

In recent years, he's also been busy with stage roles, including that of a Saskatchewan farmer engaged in a legal battle with biotech giant Monsanto in "Seeds." It's slated to run at the National Arts Centre in March 2014.

He also has a part in Jason Priestley's upcoming feature directorial debut, "Cas & Dylan."

Acting is "a very problematic way to make a living, especially in Canada," said Peterson.

But awards like the Governor General's honour are "greatly encouraging," he added.

"I can get totally lost in my rant about how bad things are, blah, blah, blah, and when I shut up long enough then I start to remember all of the things that actually do operate in this country — and one of them is that, if you keep at it long enough, you will be thanked and appreciated," said Peterson.

"It's tremendously significant. The only better thing is somebody stopping me in the street and saying, 'Hey, aren't you the ('Corner Gas') guy?' That's also amazingly refreshing and totally essential, is having your audience confront you personally, it seems to me, and say that they like what you do and they feel proud of you."

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