Back in 2008, when actor-playwright Meegwun Fairbrother was finishing his final year of theatre at York University, he was avoiding watching Stephen Harper’s formal federal apology to residential-school survivors.
Just the thought of facing more than snippets on the news was too enraging for the young actor. Issues he’d been grappling with recently and in his past all surged to the surface. There was the suicide of his Ojibwa father, who had gone to residential school. There was the fact that Fairbrother had had to learn about the dire legacy of those schools not from textbooks, but from aunts and uncles. And then there was that, early on at theatre school, a teacher had instructed him to let go of his “truth” in order to step into more acting roles.
“I took that as letting go of my culture,” Fairbrother tells the Straight over the phone from Prince George, where his new one-man show Isitwendam (An Understanding) is playing before coming to the Talking Stick Festival’s multidisciplinary celebration of Indigenous arts. “I let all my feathers go and let all my teachings go—they literally left me and got replaced by substance abuse.”
But the late, great Canadian dramaturge and mentor Iris Turcott encouraged him to watch Harper’s apology speech in full. “So I went home and I watched it. And I cried and I was angry and frustrated,” the actor recalls. “After, she said, ‘Meegwun, I think you are the person to write an answer to the apology.’ ”
Today, Fairbrother is in a different place. The Toronto artist has been clean for four years. He’s a successful movie and television actor best-known as Butterhead on OMNI’s Mohawk Girls and, more recently, Owen Beckbie on CBC’s Burden of Truth. And the interdisciplinary play he wrote as that “answer” to Harper’s speech, produced by Bound to Create Theatre, with Native Earth Performing Arts, continues to evolve and tour the country.
The title Isitwendam is the closest Ojibwa word to “sorry”. While the English word denotes an instant apology—the perfunctory kind the young Fairbrother associated with Harper’s speech—the Indigenous concept is a deeper act of understanding and ownership mediated by community members. “The humbleness is there because you’re involving the community,” he explains. “It’s allowing yourself to be connected to all your actions.”
In Isitwendam, he plays nine different characters, all of whom embody different attitudes toward reconciliation issues, he says. The main role is young, aspiring Conservative politician Brendan, a half-white, half-Ojibwa man hired by Aboriginal Affairs to investigate a residential-school survivor’s reparation claim. But the process reveals Brendan’s own family ties to Canada’s dark past.
Fairbrother developed the plot through years of interviews and research into survivor testimony, as well as into his own family’s past and the trauma suffered by his father.
“The important thing for me was to take my own pain and move it into the universal,” he says.
In the show, part of that approach has involved integrating the sign language that Plains Indigenous peoples once used to communicate.
“For me, it’s also important to be really entertaining,” adds Fairbrother, who stresses each show will have a talkback afterward. “If people are laughing, then they’re listening. We strove to make it super theatrical. I play nine different characters, I sing, I dance, I do movement. We have a beautiful set and lighting to really create magic in the space.”
Through the process, Fairbrother has also been able to find himself again. Although he lost his artist father only months after he was born, Fairbrother’s Scottish-English mother raised him amid his culture. She was a teacher who worked on reserves across northwestern Ontario, and Fairbrother grew up hunting, fishing, and attending ceremonies and sweat lodges.
Today, Fairbrother is attending ceremonies again, and teaching art-based workshops and Okichitaw martial arts to Indigenous youth throughout northern B.C. and Ontario, even while he takes on more writing, directing, and acting roles.
“Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to perform this show,” he says. “[Plains Cree actor and dance artist] Michael Greyeyes and I talk about how healthier humans are way better at communicating than unhealthy ones. So that’s kind of my philosophy now: being a well person in order to communicate at my best.”
The Talking Stick Festival presents Isitwendam at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre from next Wednesday to Saturday (February 26 to 29).