How a musical about residential schools aims to humanize trauma and foster healing

After a universally lauded run at the National Arts Centre, Children of God begins at the Segal Centre Jan. 20.

After a run at the National Arts Centre, Children of God begins at the Segal Centre Jan. 20

The play Children of God tells the story of a family who is torn apart by the residential school system. (David Cooper/Western Canada Theatre/Citadel Theatre)

Combining the phrases "residential schools" and "musical theatre" is bound to raise a few eyebrows.

But Children of God, an original musical written by Vancouver Oji-Cree artist Corey Payette, is no Guys and Dolls.

It's a profound, at times painful, look at the years of systemic abuse perpetrated on generations of Indigenous people by the Canadian government.

Payette understands the initial apprehension, but says the medium is the perfect way to express the story he set out to tell.

Corey Payette is the writer and director of Children of God. (Mique'l Dangeli)

"The musical theatre form lends itself well to Indigenous culture," he said, adding that combining music and choreography to this play seemed like a natural fit.

"We use music as a tool to access emotions and have the characters speak those emotions that are beyond words."

Children of God tells the story of an Oji-Cree family torn apart by residential schools in northern Ontario through two generations, focusing on the experience of one fictional family.

Payette, who wrote and directed the show, said the process took him on a larger journey than he could have predicted.

The show received rave reviews during its run at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. (David Cooper)

"It took me seven years to write this show, and over the course of those seven years, I grew up as a person," he told CBC's All in a Weekend.

During that period, Payette spoke with survivors, leaders and people directly implicated in running the schools.

He said that at first, he approached the production from a place of anger and outrage over what had happened, but that talking with survivors gave him a new focus.

"It takes an enormous amount of strength and resilience to overcome this horrific history," said Payette.

"I thought maybe if people could understand that, that audiences could understand the strength of Indigenous people."

In writing Children of God, Corey Payette spoke with numerous survivors of the residential school system. (Emily Cooper)

The show premiered at the York Theatre in Vancouver in May 2017 before moving to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where it garnered rave reviews.

Now it's landed for a limited run at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts in Côte-des-Neiges and features a predominantly Indigenous cast.

Payette said that he had no trouble finding the talent to bring this story to life, saying: "I could cast this show 10 times over."

"The talent that's out there in Indigenous communities is so powerful," he said.

Previews for Children of God start tonight. The show runs through Feb. 10.


Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.


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