It has been three weeks since Inuk artist Delilah Saunders and her family testified at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls at Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia.

Now, Saunders says she's "turning her pain into positive action," collaborating with a Labrador City composer on a chamber opera.  

Loretta Saunders, a Saint Mary's University student, was murdered in February 2014 by the couple who was subletting her apartment — over a few hundred dollars in rent. Her body was left in a hockey bag along the Trans-Canada Highway west of Salisbury, N.B. The couple pleaded guilty to murder charges in 2015 and both received life sentences. 

Since her sister's death, Saunders says she has been putting pen to paper, asking herself about the factors that contribute to the grim realities faced by Canada's Indigenous people every day. She says it's helping her to cope.

"I'm a writer, so I've been doing everything I can to express myself on a personal level," said Saunders. "But I'm also looking at the 'big picture' — looking at residential schools, the child welfare system, the prison system." 

One Stalk One Arrow

Noseworthy, a composer, calls the classical contemporary piece 'stark, with disturbing imagery', and says it suits Saunders's writing. (Andrew Noseworthy)

Saunders says her first piece for the opera, One Stalk, One Arrow, No Stalk, No Arrow, which was premiered last week at Western University in London, Ont., is, in part, about the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons. 

Having faced legal trouble in the past, she wondered who she might see in prison.

Stark, disturbing imagery

Composer Andrew Noseworthy, from Labrador City, is the other half of the chamber opera collaboration. He says it was important for him to "get it right," when considering how to pair the written piece with contemporary classical music. The subject matter, Noseworthy says, is something he couldn't quite relate to as a non-Indigenous man. 

"It's hard to put into words," said Noseworthy of the music. "I knew going into it that Delilah's sense of raw and direct approach was important. There's very stark, disturbing imagery in it, but in the end it get smoother — it becomes more hopeful in a way." 

'I reminded her how one arrow, when bent, will snap and break. But together, the way we were in that moment, the same way we were when we were kids, we are strong, un-bending, un-breaking. One stalk of corn cannot withstand the elements, it cannot stand alone, but corn in rows, side by side. They weather storms together. They move together, allowing each other to grow.'- One Stalk, One Arrow, No Stalk, No Arrow

Nosewothy says he thinks Saunders's writing suits contemporary classical music, and the collaboration has been satisfying for him. 

"[The chamber opera] has this dynamic complexity, but it's accessible. It's kind of straight, hit-you-in-the-face, but there's this line through it that gets deeper and deeper. It's just like Delilah's story in a way." 

Echoing Noseworthy's thoughts is Canadian mezzo soprano Anita Krause, who performed the piece at its premiere last week. 

"Delilah and Andrew's piece was a real challenge for me," Krause said. "The music is angular in a way, heightened and dramatic. Much like the written component. The result was really something." 

Krause says learning of the Saunders family's story resonated with her personally, and that she was "very grateful" their story is now being told through a medium like opera. 

"Yes, the human condition is sometimes better expressed better through art than the news," she said.

Delilah Saunders School

Delilah Saunders has been touring Ontario secondary schools, sharing her perspectives as an Inuk woman and her family's story. (Submitted by Delilah Saunders)

Saunders says the opera project is an important step forward in her personal life. It's allowing her to step back from her family's experiences at the Inquiry hearings in Membertou.

She says the disorganisation and poor communication from Inquiry staff left her disappointed and worried. Case in point, she says, was the resignation of her family's inquiry liaison lawyer, Joseph Murdoch-Flowers

Another step forward

Continuing to share what's she learned is still important to her, Saunders says. Over the past few weeks, she has been touring secondary schools in Ontario, sharing her experiences and opening a "powerful, inspiring" dialogue with young people. 

While taking questions from one school in Simcoe County, Saunders says a young woman asked her if she considered that without the loss of her sister, she may never have achieved her artistic accomplishments.  

"'I'd trade it all for more time with Loretta," answered Saunders.