How to build mainstream Canadian relations with First Nations: listen up!

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There is an evolving collaboration within Canadian theatre relevant to national reconciliation. This may prove a template for relationship building between Canada and First Nations. Here is a tale of possibility.

The success of Kevin Loring’s play Where the Blood Mixes presents a challenge for Yvette Nolan, former artistic director (AD) of Native Earth Performing Arts. The play is about residential schools’ cascading impact on aboriginal communities. Nolan says, “People have finally cottoned on that residential school was not just boarding school and the damage that was done was much greater. Plays like Where the Blood Mixes totally educate and confirm for the mainstream audience how really fucked up we are. That’s the narrative that is acceptable…all over the country people can be moved and educated and feel that they have some insight into indigenous experience here, and all of that is true. But that is not the only thing that indigenous artists are doing.”

The challenge is this story needs to be told but paradoxically feeds into a national narrative of indigenous as victim. Contemporary works that express a multiplicity of experience have short lives and are then sidelined, no matter of what caliber, or how important to a national conversation. Within the mainstream, it appears that full artistic expression, as well as breadth of narrative, is still constrained. In the struggle to produce more varied and representative aboriginal works, a central question for practitioners is, “Who gets to say what gets done?”

Creating Canadian theatre is a constant struggle, and the question of what gets done exposes a complicated puzzle. Michael Dobbin, producing director emeritus of Alberta Theatre Projects considers an AD’s job is to “foster the art form and showcase artists, balanced with the need to preserve the organizations that they serve. It takes huge risks to transform Canadian theatre”. Michael Shamata, AD at the Belfry Theatre, is producing Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters next season. Although Shamata thinks that aboriginal theatre is coming into its own, he has not yet been able to program anything from, as he puts it, “a new generation of artists who are devising their own pieces and expressing themselves”. Boldness on the part of mainstream ADs is one side of the equation; the other is the strength of aboriginal artists and the quality of the work they create.

Nolan is hopeful of being on the cusp of change. In April, leaders of indigenous theatre met at a symposium at the Banff Centre. They were there to discuss the position of aboriginal performing arts within Canadian culture, to illuminate an indigenous body of work, and to be heard by key theatre producers. The objective was to generate knowledge and liveliness around indigenous works, and at least in part to lay foundation for a longer gathering of talent next year which the National Arts Centre (NAC) is calling The Study on Indigenous Theatre. Nathan Medd, NAC’s managing director of English theatre, expresses the company’s commitment “to see indigenous work become part of the DNA of our programming and the institution. As artists and as a global audience, we want to better understand: what stories are coming from these communities, and what might we have missed, for any number of reasons? How are these stories made and how are they told?” His enthusiasm arises from his experience of being one of the symposium’s listeners. Who spoke and who only listened was important; the usual power dynamic was literally turned on its ear.

Perhaps now is the time for all Canadians to finally hear a more complete national story. Listen to indigenous directors relish the vitality and eclectic sensibilities of emerging aboriginal artists. Listen to those young artist honour their elders and teachers. Listen to astute indigenous creators who integrate urbanity with connections to land and tradition. Nolan transformed The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, written by non-native George Ryga in 1967, into a more authentically aboriginal piece for its run at the NAC. She integrated Secwepemc (Shuswap) language into the script, and First Nation musicians composed the music. Nolan’s “bass note is now indigenous”. The singer in the play, once a distanced narrator, now sees everything and is, in fact, Rita’s spirit. In the end, says Nolan, Rita is not just another “dead Indian”; her spirit returns to her ancestors and reconnects with community. The play now articulates the primary impulse to reconnect. Listen to that.

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