Indigenous works grab spotlight in NAC series

The National Arts Centre says Indigenous stories will take centre-stage at its Canada Scene Festival this summer. 

The festival, which takes place from June 15 to July 30, is specially focused this year on celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. 

Rosemary Thompson, the NAC’s director of communications, said the emphasis on Indigenous works is part of the Elgin Street cultural centre’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“There was a call to all institutions to embrace Indigenous language and culture,” she explained. “We’re lucky because we’re a performing arts institution and Indigenous performing arts in general are just gorgeous.”

Some of this content will include a performance by the legendary Saskatchewan Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, an opera on 19th-century Métis leader Louis Riel, and a musical called Children of God written by Northern Ontario Oji-Cree playwright Corey Payette on residential schools. 

Heather Moore, executive director of Canada Scene, said the opera, Louis Riel, is a significant inclusion. She said the original production by composer Harry Somers in 1967 did not involve Indigenous artists despite the opera being about the life of one of the founders of the Métis nation and leader of two Indigenous uprisings in Western Canada.

“We’re saying in 2017, when the NAC is 50 years-old, the theatre that represents our country is English, French and Indigenous,” Moore said. “It’s something the NAC is taking on as part of our role and it’s pretty exciting.”

The opera is a joint project between the NAC and the Canadian Opera Company. 

Jennifer Pugsley, media relations manager for the COC, said by email that the opera’s director, Peter Hinton, was chosen due to his “long-standing relationship and involvement with First Nations artists.” 

She said the opera will feature Indigenous artists in principal roles. Some of the opera’s lyrics will also be translated into Cree and the Métis language Michif. 

Pugsley said she is hopeful the COC will be able to recruit a Métis costume designer for the production as well. 

David Dean, a social history professor at Carleton University, said Indigenous representation on the national stage is a positive first step for the NAC. 

“This is long overdue, though I’d go a bit further and say that we need to go beyond including First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples in our history,” he said. 

Thompson said she agrees the NAC has just begun its journey towards reconciliation with Indigenous people. 

“We’re learning,” she said. “I think all of Canada is learning and we’re opening up our hearts and our stages and trying to reflect a more accurate picture of Canada.” 

Moore said this journey began with Hinton a decade ago. Before he went to work with the COC, he served as artistic director at the NAC English Theatre from 2005 to 2012. 

“He made a commitment to putting out Indigenous work on his stage every year that he was here and that was kind of, I don’t want to say ground-breaking, but it was a bold move. It was a statement at that time,” she said. 

Thompson said it has been a long and rewarding journey for the NAC. 

“When the (TRC) was coming out, we really listened and we talked with them and we helped propel their ideas,” she said. “The NAC has been on this path but we’ve been able to work with really important actors in Canada to help be part of the solution.”

She says the festival is their latest effort to weave Indigenous voices back into the national art scene. 

Thompson said Indigenous stories have been featured at the NAC over the past decade, but were brought to the forefront with the release of the TRC Final Report in January 2016.

The first of these projects, I Lost My Talk, was an orchestral work by composer John Estacio, which Thompson said was made possible through consultation with Indigenous artists and activists. The performance was based on a poem written by late Mi’kmaw elder and poet, Rita Joe, about her experience at the Schubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia. 

This event was followed with the 100 Years of Loss exhibit on residential schools, a ballet entitled Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation, written by award-winning author, Joseph Boyden, and a performance by A Tribe Called Red, whose music blends traditional First Nations songs with electronic music.