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When the National Arts Centre approached me about producing a play about John A. Macdonald, I was puzzled. Why me?
Ever gone to a wedding where the minister asks if anybody has good reason to object to the union and discover your hand is halfway up? Welcome to my Canada 150 conundrum.
In case you’ve missed all the advertising, Canada is full-on “celebrating” the 150th anniversary of its creation, the combining of four provinces into a dominion back in 1867. Reportedly it was a beautiful day, and there was much jubilation among the three and a quarter million inhabitants. Native people, of course, were not invited to that party.
But now it’s 2017, and Native people have indeed been invited to the party. Millions and millions of dollars are being spent promoting events and projects all across the country, including by Indigenous peoples, highlighting important people, places and things in Canadian history.
And on the heels of the all-too-recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools, the long delayed Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, not to mention the plethora of land claims and court cases scattered across Canada, many in the First Nations community, and especially the arts, wonder if they, in good conscience, should join in the bash.
When the National Arts Centre in Ottawa first approached me to produce a play about John A. Macdonald (as told from the Native perspective) – which will be presented in October as part of Canada 150 festivities – I was puzzled. Why me? I am not particularly well known for historical plays or plays about dead white politicians.
But after some time, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to shed some unique Indigenous light on this early period in Native-settler relations and explore the story of a man with a dubious reputation in Aboriginal communities.
Anishnawbe comedian Ryan McMahon would disagree with my decision. He’s the Ojibway in the room.
“I don’t know what we’re celebrating. It doesn’t matter what colour underwear the prime minister wears – red, blue, orange or green – successive governments have acted dishonourably,” says McMahon. “I will not celebrate high suicide rates, thousands of missing or murdered Indigenous women, the Indian Act or a heartless child welfare system. I care too much about my people to put our differences aside for fireworks and hot dogs.”
The tortured and complicated history of Native-government relations seems to be the theme for dissenters at #resistance150.
Metis artist Christi Belcourt is not enthusiastic about the celebration. She’s written a poem – Canada, I Can Cite For You 150.
It reads in part: “I can cite for you 150 / Lists of the dead / 150 languages no longer spoken / 150 rivers poisoned / 150 Indigenous children taken into care last month / 150 Indigenous communities without water / 150 grieving in a hotel in Winnipeg / 150 times a million lies.”
It’s not just individual First Nation artists who are struggling with Canada 150 celebrations. Many organizations across the country are exploring necessary and unexpected difficult issues arising from this hullabaloo.
Vancouver Community College’s Indigenous education & community engagement program came up with a unique way of handling the potentially volatile situation after discussion around Canada’s birthday prompted negative response from department staff. The decision was made to host a spoken word event where participants can share, in 150 words, what Canada’s 150th means to them.
Those in Indigenous communities contributing to the festivities are well aware of the bad taste it’s leaving in some people’s mouths.
Cree playwright Ken Williams, of Saskatoon’s Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre, has expressed his own moral dilemmas, but argues that “Indigenous stories of resistance and resiliency must be shared at times like this.”
He adds, “For me, I need to participate to ensure that Canada’s story remains complex and complete, so that nothing is [forgotten] in the flurry of celebration.”
For Williams, participating is not the same as celebrating. I agree, but admittedly, I am not exactly objective on this issue given my own involvement in Canada 150.
But it should also be noted that I plan to use the money received from this artistic endeavour to do battle with a new tyranny imposed upon me by the dominant Canadian society, an evil called a mortgage. It’s financing my attempt to take a small portion of our land back.
Two weeks ago, as I was sitting in the Saskatoon airport, an image of the lovely face of Native actor and producer Jennifer Podemski looked down on me. It was on a poster that’s part of We.ca’s “We Are The Future 50” campaign spotlighting inspiring Canadians. It bore the message, “How will Jennifer shape Canada’s next 150 years?” Good question. But I think we have to get through this year first. 3
Drew Hayden Taylor is an award-winning playwright and novelist from Curve Lake First Nation near Peterborough.
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