2 Indigenous performers forced to miss Louis Riel opera due to alleged 'racialized and homophobic violence'

Two Indigenous performers were missing from one of Toronto's most prestigious stages Tuesday night due to "racialized and homophobic violence," according to an announcement made onstage by a fellow cast member in the opera Louis Riel.

Canadian Opera Company wishes a 'speedy recovery' to Justin Many Fingers and Stevie Mark

Justin Many Fingers, left, was absent from Tuesday's performance of opera Louis Riel following a violent incident. He was replaced in part by Jani Lauzon, right. (Melody Lau/CBC)

Two Indigenous performers were missing from one of Toronto's most prestigious stages Tuesday night due to "racialized and homophobic violence," according to an announcement made onstage by a fellow cast member in the opera Louis Riel.

The announcement about the absence of Justin Many Fingers and Stevie Mark was made by cast member Cole Alvis just before the curtain rose on the Canadian Opera Company's production, which is about Canada's most famous Métis leader.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Many Fingers did not elaborate on the alleged incident but wrote that he and Mark were grateful for the concern coming their way from friends during a "difficult time." 

Many Fingers also wrote that he and Mark would "love some privacy so that we can gather our strength, to heal, recover, and be ready to perform." 

The COC, which is staging the opera at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, confirmed that the "unscripted" announcement about the two performers was made but also declined to comment on the nature of the alleged incident.  

"Their well-being is our paramount concern. We are offering them our full support and wish them a speedy recovery, the COC said, without going into any further detail.

"We look forward to having them rejoin us on stage for the final two performances of Louis Riel."  

Toronto police say they have no incident on file involving the two performers.

Indigenous dancer Jani Lauzon, who is also part of the Louis Riel cast, told CBC Toronto that she and another perfomer stepped in as replacements for Many Fingers on Tuesday night. 

"I'm very saddened for Justin," she said. "I'm concerned for Justin's health and for his continued desire to return to Toronto to work as an Indigenous performer." 

The Land Assembly chorus, made up entiely of Indigenous performers, in the updated production of the opera Louis Riel. The Canadian Opera Company performed the production on Tuesday without two performers. (Canadian Opera Company/Michael Cooper)

Many Fingers is a Blackfoot dancer from southern Alberta. He is cast as the Buffalo Dancer in Louis Riel and also performs in the land assembly chorus — silent performers who respond to the action of the opera.  

"I really love it," Many Fingers told CBC guest host Ali Hassan last month on the CBC radio program q.  "For me, not speaking any words, I'm not being silenced. I'm choosing not to speak. It's not a light opera, it's very intense."

Opera includes Indigenous perspective

Louis Riel first premiered in 1967 when it was commissioned for Canada's centennial. It's been updated for Canada's 150th anniversary at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

The production stays faithful to the original script but has added the voices and perspectives of Indigenous people missing from the 1967 production. 

Riel remains a controversial figure in Canadian history. He led two Métis rebellions against the government of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who called the Metis "savages."

Louis Riel led two Métis rebellions. He was tried for sedition and hanged. (National Archives of Canada)

The rebellions took place in the 1870s and 1880s, first in Manitoba and then in Saskatchewan. Riel was captured, tried and found guilty of sedition, and hanged. He's now considered by many to be a Father of Confederation, responsible for bringing Manitoba to provincehood, and a hero to many Indigenous people.

"We're the first generation of Indigenous artists taught by Indigenous people," Many Fingers had said on q. "We had to fight for that."  

Five years ago, Many Fingers trained at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto. He said his goal then was to someday perform at the Four Seasons Centre, where the Tuesday night's production was staged.

About the Author

Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"