Controversy over Indigenous representation pursues Robert Lepage play as it opens in Paris

Abenaki filmmaker Kim O'Bomsawin said one of the more offensive parts of the play — about residential schools — had been taken out, but more could have been done to rid it of its colonialist undertones.

Abenaki filmmaker attends premiere, says play overlooks history of Indigenous activism

Robert Lepage's contentious play, Kanata, premiered in Paris this weekend. (Théâtre du Soleil)

For Kim O'Bomsawin, there has been a "before" and an "after" Kanata, the contentious play by Robert Lepage that premiered in Paris this weekend.

"Everybody knows that we are here, capable of telling our story and that it will no longer happen without us," she said Monday.

O'Bomsawin, an Abenaki filmmaker, travelled to France to see the play that she and a number of other Indigenous artists and activists had publicly denounced earlier this year for its representation of Indigenous people without their input.

Lepage's production company, Ex Machina, initially cancelled the Paris production of Kanata in July when some North American co-producers withdrew financial support amid the criticism. 

But a French theatre, Théâtre du Soleil​, decided to mount the play anyway, despite revelations there had been no consultation with Indigenous people in its creation. 

The theatre said it would produce the play with its own funds and "with the help of Robert Lepage, who will direct the production without remuneration and in a personal capacity." Ex Machina dissociated itself with the production.

Indigenous filmmaker Kim O'Bomsawin travelled to France to see the play that she, and a number of other Indigenous artists and activists, had publicly denounced this summer for its representation of Indigenous people. (Claire Loewen/CBC)

O'Bomsawin, who signed a letter criticizing the production this summer, said one of the more offensive parts of the play — about residential schools — had been taken out, but more could have been done to rid it of its colonialist undertones.

A positive debate

The most significant thing about the play to her, though, was not its content, but the conversation it started on the need for more collaboration with Indigenous people in Quebec entertainment. 

"All this debate was very positive," O'Bomsawin said. "I think there was a before Kanata and an after."

Since the original controversy, O'Bomsawin said, she has been consulted by several producers in the entertainment world "who want to do things right."

She applauded the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for collaborating with Inuit, Cree and Innu artists for its opera The Trickster's Quest earlier this fall.

"All I want to say is that I think Kanata would have been better with us in it," she said.

"If there had been [an Indigenous] co-writer, or maybe a co-play director or a musician, it would have just been better."

How Kanata depicts settler-Indigenous relations

O'Bomsawin explained that the play is about a French couple who move to Vancouver for the male partner to improve his English and further his career as an actor. 

Meanwhile, the female partner is a painter lacking inspiration who meets a Mohawk woman on the Downtown Eastside, one of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods. 

The pair become friends in the play, but the Mohawk woman is later lured and killed by serial killer Robert Pickton.

"That gives inspiration to [the] French woman, French artist, and she starts to paint the faces of Native women that have been killed in the Downtown Eastside," O'Bomsawin said. "In the end, she becomes a type of saviour."

The Paris theatre that put on the play said Robert Lepage directed the production without remuneration. (Christian Côté/Radio-Canada)

To O'Bomsawin,  the depiction of the white-settler relationship with Indigenous people felt superficial and simplistic.

The play overlooked decades of efforts by Indigenous women to shine a light on the violence experienced by their community, she said.

"We've been trying for years so that people can hear us, saying: 'Hey, there's a problem here: we're losing women,'" O'Bomsawin said. 

The Théâtre du Soleil version of Lepage's play was called Kanata – Épisode I — La Controverse. It's unclear whether there will be a sequel.

More than 500 people packed into the theatre to see it, according to a Radio-Canada culture commentator, Katia Chapoutier, who is based in France. 

"A lot of people left with tears in their eyes," she said.

The play received a more tepid review in the New York Times, which called the transitions "clunky," the acting "artificial" and said the dialogue had "little flow to it."

With files from CBC's Daybreak