Indigenous artists criticize Quebec director Robert Lepage over new show

In an open letter, nearly two dozen Indigenous artists, activists and academics from across Quebec say they want more Indigenous artists to be included in Robert Lepage's new theatre production, Kanata.

In open letter, Indigenous artists and activists say they should be on stage for Lepage's new show, Kanata

Earlier this month, the Montreal Jazz Fest cancelled another show directed by Robert Lepage, SLĀV, after critics accused it of cultural appropriation. (Christian Côté/Radio-Canada)

A week after cancellation of his controversial slave song show SLĀV, Quebec's Robert Lepage is the target of criticism once again, this time over what appears to be a lack of Indigenous performers in a new show about relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.

In an open letter first published by Quebec newspaper Le Devoir Saturday morning, a group of Indigenous actors, writers, activists and artists from across the province said they are fed up "of hearing other people tell our stories."

Lepage's new production, Kanata, aims to tell "the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and Indigenous people." It is being staged in Paris in December.

"One of the big problems we have in Canada is to get the majority of people to respect us on a daily basis … even in the artistic community," the group's letter reads.

It was signed by nearly 20 Indigenous people, including writer Maya Cousineau Mollen, director Kim O'Bomsawin and André Dudemaine, director of Land InSights, a group that promotes Indigenous culture and organizes the annual Montreal First Peoples Festival.

"Some people were consulted by Kanata's promoters, but we believe that artists from our nations would be happy to show their pride on stage in the show. Did Kanata's directors try to collaborate?"

Signatories decry 'invisibility' of Indigenous artists

The letter comes in response to an interview published in Montreal newspaper Le Devoir with Ariane Mnouchkine, host of the Théâtre du Soleil in Paris, where Kanata will be presented later this year.

In the interview, Mnouchkine said no North American actors are participating.

According to Lepage's production company, Ex Machina, Indigenous people were consulted during the development of the project and video testimonials from First Nations people will be a part of it.

Still, the letter's signatories say they've understood that "the adventure will go on without us, once again."

They also decried the "invisibility" of Indigenous people in Quebec and Canada.

"Our invisibility in the public space, on the stage, doesn't help us," the letter reads.

"We don't want to censor anyone," they wrote. "That's not part of our beliefs or our way of seeing the world. What we want are for our talents to be recognized and celebrated today and in the future."

Criticism comes after SLĀV cancelled

The letter comes only a few weeks after another show directed by Lepage, SLĀV, was cancelled at the Montreal International Jazz Festival after prompting widespread criticism.

The show, performed by lead singer Betty Bonifassi and a predominantly white cast, was described as "a theatrical odyssey based on slave songs," but critics accused it of cultural appropriation.

Before it was cancelled, protesters gathered in front of the Montreal theatre where a performance of SLĀV was happening. (Hugo Côté/Radio-Canada)

Lepage called the Jazz Fest's decision to cancel the performances of SLĀV a blow to artistic freedom.

"When it is forbidden to identify with someone else, theatre is denied its very nature, it is prevented from performing its primary function and is thus rendered meaningless," Lepage said in a statement in early July.

Despite being cancelled in Montreal, performances of the controversial show are planned in Saint-Jérôme and Drummondville, Que., next year.

With files from La Presse Canadienne