Canadian indigenous people missing in a show about them

MONTREAL • After the closure of his polarising show featuring white actors as black slaves, renowned Quebec theatre director Robert Lepage is facing a new backlash over the failure to cast Canadian indigenous people in a coming production chronicling their historic suffering.

In recent weeks, the Canadian theatre world has been embroiled in a vociferous debate over cultural appropriation after Slav, an odyssey about black slave music by Lepage and starring singer Betty Bonifassi, was shuttered at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

The closure this month followed an outcry that having a majority white cast portraying black slaves was insensitive and minimised black suffering.

Now, about 30 people, led by indigenous artists, writers and activists, have lashed out at his new production, Kanata, which recounts aspects of indigenous Canadians' subjugation by white people.

It features 34 actors, none of whom are indigenous Canadians.

In an open letter published this weekend in Le Devoir, a leading French-language newspaper, the signatories lamented that the production was abetting the lack of indigenous faces and voices in the cultural arena.

"Our invisibility in the public space, on the stage, doesn't help us," they wrote, noting that they were not interested in censorship.

Alluding to Slav, they lamented that Lepage appeared to be repeating recent history and that they were fed up "hearing other people tell our stories".

The show, created in conjunction with France's Theatre du Soleil, will be shown in Paris in December and in Quebec in 2020.

It has caused alarm among some indigenous artists, scholars and intellectuals as it deals with recent history, including the forced enrolment of indigenous children in abusive boarding schools known as "residential schools" and the murder and disappearance of as many as 4,000 indigenous women in Canada since the 1980s. These experiences remain raw and visceral for the victims and their families.

The timing of Kanata also has particular resonance as Canada has been seeking to reconcile with its dark colonial past.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the government equated residential schools with "cultural genocide".

"Our wounds are still fresh and this production is just like a Western where you have Americans playing Indians," said Ms Maitee Labrecque-Saganash, 23, an indigenous activist in northern Quebec who signed the letter.

The angry response came after Ariane Mnouchkine, director of Theatre du Soleil, appeared to defend the casting by saying that a Danish actor need not play Hamlet, the prince of Denmark.

"The theatre needs distance and transformation," she told Le Devoir.

In an e-mail on Monday, Lepage's production company Ex Machina said he was not available for comment "because he is in an intensive creation period this week".

But in a statement over the weekend, it said that Mnouchkine and Lepage invited the letter's signatories to Montreal tomorrow to meet them "for a dialogue".

Earlier, Ex Machina said in a statement that the 34 actors in Kanata were a diverse group, that the show planned to use video testimonials from indigenous people who had been forced into residential schools and that it had also consulted widely with indigenous leaders.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2018, with the headline 'Canadian indigenous people missing in a show about them'. Print Edition | Subscribe