Cardinal obtained a B.F.A. degree in acting from the University of Alberta in 1993, becoming the first Aboriginal student ever to do so.
Cardinal is a rugby union enthusiast. He played for the Edmonton Druids RFC and then the Strathcona Druids, becoming the first Aboriginal person to play for the team. He can be seen wearing Saskatchewan Prairie Fire rugby team merchandise in Corner Gas.
Cardinal has also had various other roles in theatre, film and television, some of which include Insomnia, renegadepress.com, Crazy Horse and Wolf Canyon.
Of Cree descent, he is also noted for playing First Nations roles in many productions, including Tecumseh in Canada: A People's History and an aboriginal elder in Tkaronto. He also appeared on many episodes of North of 60. Cardinal can be heard as the voice of Jacob Morin on the APTN stop motion animated series Wapos Bay: The Series.
In 2011, Cardinal starred alongside Craig Lauzon in a production of Kenneth T. Williams' Thunderstick, in which the two traded roles on alternate days.
Cardinal has completed a documentary film titled Chasing Lear with producer Monique Hurteau which premiered on APTN in 2016. Chasing Lear is about the National Arts Centre theatre production of King Lear, with an all-Aboriginal cast which included August Schellenberg as Lear, Billy Merasty, Jani Lauzon, Tantoo Cardinal and Kevin Loring, with Cardinal doing double-duty as both assistant director and the role of Duke of Albany.
He has recently taken on the lead role in the award winning satirical short film "No Reservations." The film looks at pipeline politics and was created as a part of the Crazy8's film competition.
Cardinal currently resides on the coast of British Columbia with his wife, producer, writer and comedian Monique Hurteau. His brother Lewis, a business consultant and human rights activist in Edmonton, was a New Democratic Party candidate in the 2011 federal election.
He also has eight other siblings who currently live all over Canada.