The highway to here

By Monica Prendergast, September 2014

The Belfry’s production of “The Rez Sisters.”

I moved to Saskatchewan from England in 1969 at the age of eight. My knowledge of Canada’s First Nations was close to nil, at best the stereotype of an “Eskimo” in an igloo. Growing up in Regina did not correct this ignorance. My home and school were in the middle to upper-middle class southern end of the city. Everyone in this neighbourhood knew that the northern end was where most Indigenous people lived, not that we ever went there. Nor were Aboriginal culture and history featured in my classroom instruction. In fact, my first significant lesson about Canadian Aboriginal people came from the theatre. 

Louis Riel’s reputation was revised in the 1970s. His Northwest Rebellion was recast as an admirable act of defiance against colonialism. Of course, for many people, Riel’s rebellion was long considered a justifiable revolt against an oppressive government. But after that government put down the revolt, a century had to pass for the historic event to be retold in something closer to the truth. Theatre proved to be a great medium in this regard. For many years, the staging of The Trial of Louis Riel was a popular summer tourist attraction in Regina. My father appeared in it more than once as Riel’s nemesis, General Middleton, so it became part of my whole family’s perspective to admire Riel’s struggle. 

But it was another play that made an even stronger mark on my awakening point of view. In 1973, when I was 12, Regina’s Globe Theatre mounted George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, one of the first plays to present an honest portrayal of the contemporary lives of Native Canadians. A poetic drama about the degradation endured by a young Indigenous woman who leaves the reservation for the city only to be murdered there, this tragedy had a huge impact on me. I had one of those rare empathetic encounters with an artwork that literally changed me, raising my social consciousness.

Quite a few years would pass before I had another theatrical experience that educated me further about the lives of Indigenous people. By now I was living in Toronto. Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters premiered there in 1986, produced by Native Earth Performing Arts. The show received rave reviews and so I went to see it. Clearly inspired in part by Quebecois playwright Michele Tremblay’s great 1969 play Les Belles Soeurs (The Beautiful Sisters), the seven sisters in Highway’s play gather together to complain about their lives and to dream of better things, especially the promise of winning big at Bingo! Like Tremblay, Highway used humour as an effective way to present difficult material, including stories of poverty, abuse, rape and death. 

The toughest stuff. Yet the play was very joyful. Even though the portrayal of these women’s lives on the reserve was harsh and bleak, their dignity was strong.

I remember thinking this was another great Canadian play, to sit alongside Ryga and Tremblay as testament to both womanhood and Aboriginal survival. It was rightly nominated for the Governor General’s Award. Highway wrote a 1989 companion play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, and has gone on to write acclaimed novels, children’s books, and opera libretti. No doubt his work has inspired the generation of Indigenous writers who have followed him, including those who have created works for the theatre: Cliff Cardinal, Marie Clements, Drew Hayden Taylor and Kevin Loring. Canadian culture is all the richer for the work of these artists and their collaborators. 

Meanwhile, The Rez Sisters has been remounted occasionally over the intervening decades and it appears to be making a resurgence these days. In 2011 it was staged with colour-blind casting including both Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors at Factory Theatre in Toronto. And this fall, the Belfry Theatre is producing The Rez Sisters from September 16 through October 19. Acclaimed director Peter Hinton will lead a stellar cast of Native women actors, including Tantoo Cardinal in the role of Pelajia Patchnose.

Cardinal is probably best known for her role in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, but she has appeared in many other films such as Black Robe, Legends of the Fall and Smoke Signals. Her more recent film work includes an adaptation of playwright Marie Clements’ The Unnatural and Accidental Women, directed by Carl Bessai and released in 2006. This play and its filmed version tell the story of a young woman trying to find her mother (Cardinal) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. What she discovers is the horror of a serial killer intentionally poisoning First Nations women with alcohol overdoses. Cardinal has never shied away from challenging roles and has earned her reputation as one of Canada’s leading ladies of stage and screen. She was awarded the Order of Canada in 2009. No doubt, her work and the production as a whole will be worth the visit to Fernwood.

I, for one, will definitely be in the audience. Because I am still working on my own understanding when it comes to living as a settler in peace and equity with First Nations—and theatre-going still helps me understand. This was the case when I saw Cliff Cardinal’s Huff at Intrepid Theatre’s UNO Festival last year here in Victoria. A punch to the collective stomach about life on a Northern reserve, Cardinal’s one-man play also includes doses of dark wit to leaven the terrible topics of endless deprivation, neglect and abuse. As with The Rez Sisters character of Nanabush, Cardinal’s play features a trickster figure that watches and perhaps controls what happens. In Huff it is Raven who loves to play cruel pranks on everyone for his own enjoyment. The play left a privileged white audience member like me pushed back in my seat, challenged in the best way: What can I do to end this appalling situation in Canada?

In wanting to overcome separateness from Aboriginal peoples, my most healing experience (so far!) happened two years ago; admittedly, not at the theatre. I had the chance to teach a graduate course to a cohort of teachers in Port Hardy. I had never been to the north end of Vancouver Island, even after living here for 15 years, so was thrilled to go. Almost half the students in my class had First Nations heritage and all of them, whatever background, were working in hugely dedicated ways to improving the educational lives of Indigenous children and young people. On the weekend, I went down to the annual summer festival. Gathered in the park by the water were many dozens of locals, all having a good time with music playing, face-painting for children, and food and crafts for sale. I joined in the fun and then paused to reflect on all the people around me. First Nations and settlers, friends and neighbours, together in a way that had not been part of my upbringing. It was a real community that made me hopeful. I am grateful for that.

Monica’s most recent book, Applied Drama (co-authored with Juliana Saxton), was the recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Book Award from the American Alliance for Theatre and Education.