Settler history meets Indigenous culture in the new musical Les Filles du Roi

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      The year is 1665, and from the shores of the St. Lawrence River, near Montreal, two Mohawk children, Kateri and Jean-Baptiste, are witnessing an increasingly frequent spectacle: the docking and unloading of a European galleon. This one, however, is carrying an especially rare and valuable cargo in the form of young women. The filles du roi, as they’re known, have been chosen to join their male countrymen in what must seem a strange and forbidding new land—but at least one of them will also find an unexpected affinity with her Indigenous welcomers.

      That’s the starting point for Les Filles du Roi, the new musical from Corey Payette and Julie McIsaac, and while it’s not a prequel to Payette’s powerful residential-school saga, Children of God, it can be seen as exploring the roots of the system that allowed for the systematic abuse of Aboriginal children.

      “What stands as a connecting piece for the two is that they’re really about shifting our perspectives to allow ourselves to experience these histories through an Indigenous perspective, or through the perspective of women, who’ve been underrepresented and whose stories haven’t been documented in the same way as the standard white-male perspective,” Payette explains, on the line with McIsaac from a Granville Island rehearsal space. “That’s definitely a through-line that’s carried in both works.”

      What’s different is that Les Filles du Roi intertwines Indigenous and settler experience in eye-opening new ways, pointing out the connections between cultures as well as the clashes, and perhaps positing a way of moving forward through those shared histories.

      “It’s a big ‘What if?’ ” McIsaac says, pointing out that the young Frenchwomen were coming into a world that, unlike their priest-ridden homeland, was organized around matriarchal lines. “What if, on arrival, the European settlers, as opposed to trying to assimilate the people that were already here, what if they listened and learned from the people living here on the land at the time? What if they learned from those teachings and incorporated those teachings instead? What might our contemporary society look like?”

      McIsaac links her take on the story, which she’s been interested in since first hearing about the filles du roi in a Grade 8 history class, to contemporary social movements such as #MeToo. “Think about the things that women are still dealing with in terms of violence, in terms of not feeling respected and not feeling honoured and feeling afraid all the time,” she says. “If we had learned more from the societies existing here on the land when we first arrived, maybe that wouldn’t be the case today.”

      Les Filles du Roi is a true collaboration: Payette has composed the music, for a small ensemble of piano, violin, viola, cello, and a variety of First Nations drums; he and McIsaac wrote the book and lyrics; she plays the central fille, Marie-Jeanne Lespérance. And for both artists it’s been an opportunity to explore not just a multicultural perspective, but a multilingual one. The story is told in French, English, and Kanien’kéha, and the mere act of putting this Mohawk dialect on-stage has profound ramifications, Payette feels.

      “It’s groundbreaking,” he says. “The language holds so much culture, and it inspires me because I know that language holds our songs, and those songs hold our dances, and then those dances will tell a new story. And so, for me, I feel like there’s a movement coming where, through that language, our entire culture will be shifted, and our entire culture will be able to build outwards, and we will see ourselves differently in the future.”

      The long process of creating Les Filles du Roi has led both Payette and McIsaac to see themselves differently, too. Payette is Oji-Cree, with some French-Canadian heritage, but he’s recently learned that one side of his family moved to northern Ontario from Mohawk terrain.

      “My great-grandmother spoke Kanien’kéha, English, and French,” he says. “So now, returning to the language and trying to understand it and trying to learn all of its internal complexities, it really has been such a fulfilling experience, both personally and artistically—and one that I feel like I’m not alone in. There are Indigenous people all across Canada who are reclaiming their language, and I feel like this piece will speak to all of those people’s experiences and what they are drawn to, as well.”

      McIsaac’s connection to the story is even more intimate: in researching Les Filles du Roi, she found that one of her own forebears, on her francophone mother’s side, was on that 1665 ship, or at least one much like it.

      “It’s a piece of our history that even my mom and her sisters didn’t know about. Was there something in me or something in my family’s history that was urging me forward before I even knew?” she asks. “So if other Canadians are inspired to dig into their own family history by virtue of coming to see this show, I think that would be wonderful. Like Corey says, our ancestors aren’t that far away from us; some people believe that they’re right here with us at every moment. So that’s there to be found out; it’s there to be connected with—and I think it can only strengthen us and help us move forward.”

      Fugue Theatre and Raven Theatre, in association with Urban Ink and the Cultch, present Les Filles du Roi at the York Theatre from Tuesday (May 15) to May 27.