Playwright's journey of discovery, re-connecting with Indigenous roots, inspires new work

Matthew MacKenzie had no idea about his Métis ancestry until a chance encounter while his great-grandmother lay dying in hospital. His journey of learning about his heritage, with the help of Cree Elders, inspired his play Bears.

Matthew MacKenzie's Bears to premiere in Toronto on Thursday

Matthew MacKenzie, writer and director of Bears, and Christine Sokaymoh Frederick, artistic director and actor. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC )

A play inspired by a journey of self discovery, after a family secret hidden for generations was revealed, will be premiering in Toronto this week.

Bears, written and directed by Matthew MacKenzie, materialized after he found out he had a Métis heritage that was hidden by his ancestors.

Growing up in Edmonton, MacKenzie had no idea about his Métis heritage until he was a teenager.

While his great-grandmother was dying in an Alberta hospital, there was a woman in the same room who was from the same small town. 

"She said, 'Those are Wisharts. They're half breeds you know,'" said MacKenzie.

"My grandfather had never heard this before. This was the first light."

Christine Sokaymoh Frederick as Mama Bear and Sheldon Elter as Floyd in Matthew Mackenzie's play Bears (Alexis McKeown/Alexis McKeown Photography )

This revelation lead to MacKenzie's grandfather and great-aunt digging into their family's past to understand what the woman sharing the room with their mother was talking about.

They traced their family back into the 1800s. They found MacKenzie's great-great-great-grandmother, a Cree woman named Kisiskaciwan (Cree for Saskatchewan), had married a settler when she was a teenager and went to live in Red River, Man. Many years later she joined in an expedition travelling west to Oregon.

"When she got to the North Saskatchewan River, which is her namesake that she hadn't seen since she was a teenager, now an older woman, she went down to the river for three days and three nights and wouldn't talk to anyone and wouldn't have any food and just wept," MacKenzie said.

The story was recorded by an English man who likened MacKenzie's grandmother's veneration for the North Saskatchewan River to the reverence those of the Hindu faith have for the Ganges.

MacKenzie's grandfather, Vern Wishart, discovered that his family's history had been hidden by his own father to protect them from racism at the time.

MacKenzie said that after learning about this, he hit a spiritual wall, so he escaped to the mountains to write and try to make sense of this family history that he never knew about. Bears developed out of that journey.

The poster for the play Bears by Matthew MacKenzie. The poster art is by Jonathan Bartlett. (Submitted)

Bears is a contemporary story about self-discovery that follows the main character Floyd, an oil patch worker who is fleeing his job for reasons unknown to the audience.

"As he goes, he encounters animals and birds and it becomes clear that they're helping him evade the authorities," said MacKenzie.

"He has a whole awakening about his culture, just as I've been learning about mine, on a sub-textual level looking at his own involvement in the patch and Alberta and its effect on the natural world."

The first iteration of Bears was presented in 2015 at Alberta's Rubaboo Arts Festival, which is run by Christine Sokaymoh Frederick. Following the play, Frederick facilitated a talk-back event with an Elder.

"I think that steered it in another way and we looked at how we can do more consultation with Elders to bring more depth and understanding," said Frederick, who is now the artistic director and also an actor in the latest version of the play.

Frederick is the artistic director, producer and co-founder of Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, an Indigenous-led theatre company that's putting on the play in association with Punctuate! Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts and Theatre Centre. 

The rewrite process took two years and engaged MacKenzie with Cree Elders Jerry and Jo-Ann Saddleback in helping him discover more about his cultural heritage.

MacKenzie said having the guidance of Elders has been critical in the process of re-writing the play.

Bears premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. at The Theatre Centre at 1115 Queen St. W. in Toronto.