Talking Stick Festival's The Hours That Remain remembers the forgotten

When actor and playwright Keith Barker first heard of the Highway of Tears, he knew he had to write a script about it.
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Keith Barker’s searing new play at the Talking Stick Festival is a testament to how rarely the plight of missing aboriginal women makes it into the headlines.

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In 2009, the Métis actor and playwright was attending a talkback after a show in northern Ontario when someone in the audience raised her hand and started speaking about the Highway of Tears—that infamous 700-kilometre stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert where dozens of women, most of them First Nations, disappeared or were murdered between 1969 and 2011.

“I was flabbergasted because I had never heard of it,” says Barker, still dumbfounded as he speaks to the Straight before his play, The Hours That Remain, heads out here for its western Canadian debut. “I watch The National every night, I read a newspaper, I’m informed, and I said, ‘Wow, what is this?’ I was so angry and upset that I had never heard of this. I said, ‘If this had happened to a nonaboriginal woman this would be front-page news; this would be an outrage.’

“So I did the one thing I’d never done before. I started writing.”

The result, five years later, is a work that focuses on a woman haunted by the disappearance of her sister, who visits her in a series of visions, and on the wedge it drives between the survivor and her husband as they search for answers that will never come. It’s played from Toronto to Saskatoon, and now comes here in a Gwaandak Theatre production, with help from New Harlem Productions.

Writing his first play was a years-long process for Barker. He researched the Highway of Tears, but he also drew on personal experience. “I grew up in northern Ontario and my mom works for the OPP, so I knew there was a problem with young aboriginal women there and I was aware of how vulnerable they were,” he explains.

The title and the idea of focusing on those left behind came from another family connection: “My uncle lost both sons to suicide and he said, ‘For those of us left behind, it’s just the hours that remain.’ Then it became about not having any answers and the police not being able to help and the idea that you have no closure. When do you stop looking for the person? At what point do you let it go?”

Barker never wanted to base his play on real people, though he does draw on tidbits that he found in his research. He would never want a sister, mother, father, or brother to see their sister or mother portrayed on-stage after such trauma.

He realizes it’s bleak subject matter, but he emphasizes to audiences that the journey he takes them on will not be all dark.

“I want people to know I’m not going to take them to a place and then just abandon them. It’s a good message and a good story that will give some hope,” he says passionately. “It’s a hard thing to say ‘Trust me,’ but I think these are important stories for the dialogues that come out of them. I always want to show that the women who go missing are not prostitutes. It’s not what you think. They had full lives and were human beings just like you and me.”

After the performance here, Barker is set to take the work to Dawson City and then right up to Whitehorse. He wants to take it further, too, to northern communities, like the one he grew up in, that never have stage shows. But mostly he wants to reach viewers who might never have heard of the issue.

“I want people like me to say, ‘What is this?’” he says. “I want a conversation to start where everyone would become aware of the situation.”

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