Arts

This new play illuminates the untold history of Indigenous soldiers in World War I

Most Canadians are unaware of the role Indigenous soldiers had in the war — so these playwrights are putting their stories centre stage, literally.

Unaware of Indigenous soldiers' role in the war? These playwrights were too — before they wrote 'Redpatch'

Redpatch. (Hardline Productions)

At the time it took place, World War I was the single greatest military conflict the planet had ever seen. Still part of the British Empire, Canada automatically entered the war along with Britain in 1914. Canadian soldiers were conscripted, but the draft applied only to men of European descent — Indigenous men were exempt. Despite this, one in three Indigenous men chose to voluntarily enlist. Hardline Theatre's Redpatch tells one such story.

Created by Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver and featuring an all-Indigenous cast, Redpatch tells the imagined tale of Jonathon Woodrow, a young Métis man who leaves his family to fight a war on the other side of the Atlantic.

The show was catalyzed when Oliver was performing in the 2011 Vancouver production of Vern Thiessen's Vimy, another play about Canadian soldiers in WW I (based on a history that has certainly received its share of attention recently). Featuring characters from across the country, it included an Indigenous man from southern Alberta's Kainai nation, played by Ryan Cunningham.

Redpatch. (Hardline Productions)

Like most Canadians, Oliver had no idea that Indigenous soldiers were part of the conflict. He discussed it with Cunningham, who subsequently gave him a copy of Joseph Boyden's debut novel Three Day Road, about Cree soldiers during the war.

"It was such a fascinating story and I thought, 'Why isn't there something like this on stage?'" Oliver says. "I knew there had to be more history to be uncovered. I started to think that maybe there was a play there and we just had to find it."

Calvert was game, and they went into research mode, pouring over history books, artwork, letters from soldiers, poems and journal entries. They also had numerous conversations with a local military historian and veteran — who happened to be Oliver's postman — about soldiers' day-to-day existence during war.

I knew there had to be more history to be uncovered. I started to think that maybe there was a play there and we just had to find it.- Sean Harris Oliver

The historical research was the easy part. But to find the heart of the play, they needed to understand the character's unique cultural background. Calvert's ancestry is Nuu-Chah-Nulth — a group of nations along Vancouver Island's west coast. They decided the character would be of the same ancestry and selected the tiny community of Nootka Sound as his home. This part of the research, they realized, would require a road trip.

"We needed to meet the chief and elders, to learn about the community and ask permission to include stories and aspects of the language in the play," Calvert says. "But we were totally naïve. We thought we could just drive there. Finally we realized you can only reach it by boat and the boat only goes once a week, so we had to charter a float plane."

Redpatch. (Hardline Productions)

The trip also gave them an appreciation for the region's geography. Nootka Sound is in a fog zone — a stretch of coast frequently bathed in a dense haze. In the play, the actors are almost constantly shrouded in mist. At home it's a comfortingly familiar element — on the battlefield it becomes poisonous gas. Water is also fundamental to the life of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth, as their primary mode of transportation as well as a source of sustenance in the form of fish. Canoeing figures heavily in the show, as do whales, ravens and other wildlife.

Like the artists, most Canadians are unaware of the role Indigenous soldiers had in the war. So the obvious next question: why would they volunteer to fight on behalf of a country that colonized them?

"Everyone had their personal reasons, but part of it was colonization itself," Calvert says. "Ceremonies and cultural practices were being outlawed and a lot of these young men had been to residential school, so their own cultural histories were being extinguished. Traditionally, your family was represented by warriors, so there was this sense that having the opportunity to fight was a way to prove yourself, to be a man."

"They weren't even supposed to sign up, and so a lot of them either had to lie about their status or relinquish it to get in," Oliver adds. "That became an issue when they returned because it meant they were often not eligible for the same compensation and benefits other soldiers could get. But that's a whole other play we still have to write."

Redpatch. By Raes Calvert and Sean Harris Oliver. April 12-16. Studio 16, 1555 7th Avenue West, Vancouver. www.hardlineproductions.ca/redpatch