'This dialogue has to happen': How this musical is confronting Canada's residential school history

Growing up, playwright Corey Payette learned almost nothing about Canada's dark residential school past. But now, he's putting that history centre stage.

Playwright Corey Payette is putting Canada's dark history centre stage

(Emily Cooper)

Musical theatre isn't generally used to address pressing political issues — which is why, at first glance, Children of God might seem like a surprising premise. The brainchild of Vancouver-based artist Corey Payette, the show tackles the painful history of Canada's residential school system through song and dance.

While the format is often used for light entertainment, Payette sees it as a fitting way to explore this shameful part of our past.

"Music is used as a tool in the show to help us access these horrific moments and to absorb what the characters are dealing with," he says. "But it's also fundamental to the culture. Elders have told us that you cannot have a story without that story having a song, that you cannot have a song without that song having a dance and that you cannot have a dance without that dance having a story. So musical theatre, which combines all three, is a perfect way to explore this subject."

(Emily Cooper)

Rather than try to encapsulate the entire system with a historical drama, Payette opted for an imagined account of one family's experience. Opening in 1950, the show follows Tom, a 13-year-old Oji-Cree boy who leaves home to attend residential school — much to the horror of his mother Rita, a residential school survivor herself. The narrative then jumps ahead to 1970, revealing the lasting impacts these experiences have had on the family.

Payette's desire to tell this story was deeply personal. Like most Canadians, he grew up knowing almost nothing about this history — something our education system is only just beginning to address. Frustrated and angry at both his own lack of knowledge and the country's cultural silence, he initially began work on the piece more than seven years ago as a way to combat his own ignorance on the issue.

(Emily Cooper)

His research relied primarily on firsthand accounts from survivors, mostly from communities in rural B.C, and the process provided a wealth of information that would inform his telling of this story. But it also came with some surprises.

"I was expecting them to express their anger, to speak of the horrors they experienced," he says. "But many of them came to the conversation from the opposite approach — speaking of forgiveness, healing and how they are working to rebuild. So from that point, the show changed from being a piece about anger to something that had a larger purpose: to bring communities together through the process of reconciliation."

It's all about how we as individuals can engage in an ongoing process of reconciliation in our everyday lives.- Corey Payette, playwright

Along with his conversations with survivors about their experiences and the ripple effects on future generations, Payette also included some unexpected parties in his research: a handful of religious leaders who had worked at different schools.

"They had heard about the show and came to an early reading we were doing," Payette says. "One came up to me after and said it was the greatest shame of their life to have been part of that and that they still hold onto it to this day. They thanked me for writing the piece and for blowing the lid off this history so the mainstream public can know about it. In writing the show, I thought it was important to humanize these people as well and not just make them the villains of the story."

(Emily Cooper)

Much as the show was built through dialogue, dialogue continues to be part of the work in its presentation. After each performance, the cast has a conversation with the audience about the issues discussed and, in some cases, audience members' own experiences.

"It's all about how we as individuals can engage in an ongoing process of reconciliation in our everyday lives," Payette says. "In the future, people will look back to our generation and see our approach to this issue as a measure of our success. This dialogue has to happen. And I think it's great that a musical can be part of that."

Children of God. Written and directed by Corey Payette. June 7-18. National Arts Centre. Ottawa.


  • A previously published version of this article misstated that Corey Payette's grandfather attended a residential school.
    Jun 06, 2017 11:30 AM ET