Kanata: Director Robert Lepage open to dialogue with Indigenous artists over new play

Quebec theatre director Robert Lepage has responded to Indigenous actors, writers, activists and artists from across the province who raised concerns about his upcoming play, Kanata, in an open letter on Saturday.

'We can't just be happy that people are interested in telling those stories,' says signatory Kim O'Bomsawin

Abenaki film director Kim O’Bomsawin, whose documentary about missing and murdered Indigenous women Ce silence qui tue was released in the spring, signed the open letter published in Le Devoir. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Quebec theatre director Robert Lepage says he will meet a group of Indigenous actors, writers, activists and artists from across Quebec who have raised concerns about his upcoming play, Kanata, in an open letter.

The letter's signatories say while the play aims to tell "the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and Indigenous people," no Indigenous actors or writers are involved in the production. 

"It kind of feels like a repeated story," said Kim O'Bomsawin, an Abenaki film director who signed the letter, in an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak Monday.

Lepage now says he and Ariane Mnouchkine, a French theatrical director and founder of Théâtre du Soleil in Paris, where Kanata is to be staged in December, want to sit down with the letter's signatories on Thursday. 

In a news release Sunday evening from Lepage's production company, Ex Machina, Lepage says he and Mnouchkine "closely read the letter" published Saturday in the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir.

Last week, Lepage's play with singer Betty Bonifassi, SLĀV, was cancelled following an outcry about its appropriation of African American slave songs and its predominantly white cast. 

Lepage called the Montreal Jazz Festival's decision to cancel the performances a "blow to artistic freedom."

​'We are super happy'

"We are super happy that they decided to open the dialogue," O'Bomsawin said of Lepage and Mnouchkine. "I guess they've learned from the past controversy, and if they want to make things right, we're here. We want to talk, and that's why we wrote this letter."

Dave Jenniss is the artistic director of Ondinnok, an Indigenous-lead theatre company that has operated in Montreal for three decades. ((Dave Jenniss))

O'Bomsawin said the concerns had nothing to do with Lepage's artistic talent, and she feels the intentions behind the desire to tell stories of oppression are good.

"We're always happy to have non-Natives interested in what's happening with us because we've been silenced for so long. So I guess we're just fed up to hear people telling our story without even talking to us. "

She told Daybreak that Indigenous people were said to have been consulted on the play, but she wasn't aware of who.

"When you're speaking about such important issues, such traumatizing issues, I think we need to be more than consulted," she said.

Another signatory to the open letter, Dave Jenniss, the artistic director of Ondinnok — an Indigenous-led theatre company that has operated in Montreal for three decades — said he will take the time to meet Lepage Thursday.

"All I can say is that the artistic approach is honourable, but as an artist and artistic director of Ondinnok, it hurts me," said Jenniss.

"We are tired of being ignored, excluded and folklorized in productions telling our story."

"Here, there is a lack of respect, and the French will see it all, and probably they will say, 'Oh well, that's the Indian Kanata.'"

'Nothing about us, without us'

Sandra Lalonde, executive and artistic director of Toronto's Red Sky Performance, was one of the Indigenous artists with whom Lepage and representatives of Theatre du Soleil met when they visited the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity during the research phase of their production.

She said the experience made her feel "awkward."

"I thought he was very nice," Lalonde said. "It was just awkward because they were there to learn more but [it was] also a bit of a 'study,' knowing that there was not going to be one Indigenous person involved on stage."

Kanata tells the story of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. (Théâtre du Soleil)

Lalonde says theatre should hold up a mirror to life, and she feels Indigenous people are rarely "reflected in that mirror," when it comes to Canadian theatre.

"What does get shown is something created by someone else on those main stages," she said.
"The appetite is there, but then they don't get the true sustenance of what our stories can give."

"There is a saying in Canada right now that I've heard a lot of First Nations people saying: 'nothing about us, without us.' There's something to that."

Lepage has history with Huron-Wendat

Guy Sioui Durand, an art critic, independent curator and performer from Wendake, the Huron-Wendat territory in Quebec City, did meet Lepage and his team at their request to discuss aspects of the play.

"We talked together on a specific topic: the False Face Society of shamans, the ceremonies and the masks," said Sioui Durand. 

"They never asked me anything about the scenarios or the French actors' casting. The discussion was at a high level of knowledge."

He said Lepage and Ex Machina have a longstanding relationship with the Huron-Wendat in Wendake.

In the 1990s, Guy Sioui Durand's brother, playwright, director and actor Yves Sioui Durand, was in the cast of one of Lepage's plays, and more recently, in 2008 and again in 2011, Lepage collaborated with the Huron-Wendat on other performances.

Guy Sioui Durand is comfortable with Lepage's relationship with his community, however, he is cautious about the production of Kanata in Paris.

It has to be understood within the context of France's colonial past, he said — a history in which France had the upper hand.

Also ready to meet SLĀV opponents

In Sunday's Ex Machina news release, Lepage also indicated he is now willing to meet the SLĀV Résistance collective, which launched a petition against that show before it was cancelled. 

The collective said it had not yet been contacted directly by Lepage, but it's open to "having an exchange with honesty and respect."

With files from Jessica Deer