Thunder Bay

Stolen, Azhen: play by Thunder Bay, Ont., teenagers tackles residential school, reconciliation

A play written by Thunder Bay, Ont., high school students, which focuses on the long-lasting impacts of residential school and examines the current state of reconciliation in Canada, premieres online Friday night, nearly two years after the project first started.

Magnus Theatre and high school students persisted through pandemic to make virtual performance public Friday

Keira Essex, 18, in a screenshot from a digitally staged reading of Stolen, Azhen. Magnus Theatre's youth-led Collective Creation Project will be available online beginning Friday night. (Magnus Theatre )

A play written by Thunder Bay,  Ont., high school students, which focuses on the long-lasting impacts of residential school and examines the current state of reconciliation in Canada, premieres online Friday night, nearly two years after the project first started.

Stolen, Azhen, which translates into "Stolen, Returned" or "Stolen, Taken Back" in Ojibway, examines issues of racism, colonialism, cultural appropriation and highlights the violence against Indigenous women and girls.

"It was definitely a process that was hard to think about, because the history is so violent, so terrible, and I myself am Indigenous, so it's very much a topic that's close to home for me. But it was also a process of healing ... seeing attitudes and mindsets shift both in real life and in our play," said Keira Essex, a grade 12 student and one of the participants in the Collective Creative Project.

The project is an annual cooperative effort between Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay and city high school students. Theatre professionals guide the young people through the process of writing, staging, directing and performing a play which highlights a social issue relevant to teenagers.

Stolen, Azhen is set in the present day and tells the story of a teenager named Aurora, who leaves her small First Nation to attend high school in a large urban centre. Through her relationship with her mother and grandmother, Aurora confronts the ongoing impacts of residential schools on both her immediate family and her community.

Knowledge of residential schools key to reconciliation

Magnus Theatre students Cornelius Beaver (L) and Brook Malone (R) in Thunder Bay, Ont., collaborate on writing a script for the Collective Creation Project, which explores the topic of reconciliation. The process began in 2019 and culminates in a filmed read through, which is available to the public Friday. (Magnus Theatre)

The participants drew on their own experiences and those of their relatives, said Danielle Chandler, the director of Magnus Theatre in Education.

"It really comes down to the different experiences we have and the privilege that we live in. I'm so privileged to be a white woman in Canada, something that's really come to light because of this and my ancestors didn't have the experiences that some of the ancestors of the students did by any means and if we don't have that awareness of the issues then we can't move forward as a country," she said.

Chandler and Elliott Cromarty, a cultural consultant, worked with the students from November 2019 to March 2020, with a plan to stage the performance in June 2020. Although the many shutdowns and restrictions due to COVID-19 limited the number of times the group could come together and rehearse, they were able to keep the project going in person from October 2020 to March 2021. But, after consulting with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, it was decided that a filmed virtual read through would be the best way to present the show.

However throughout the entire process, Chandler and Cromaty made sure the students were supported "and that we're checking in, discussing things with them."

Ironically, the pandemic delays have made the play's theme more timely, with the announcement in May that the remains of approximately 215 children had been detected on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

That's why Chandler is hoping people will take some time to watch Stolen, Azhen.

'Terrifying but so exciting'

"Reconciliation is a responsibility of all of us. I think if you're not Indigenous and I'm not Indigenous, it's quite easy to say, you know, that doesn't really have anything to do with me, so I'm not going to bother myself with it. It wasn't me who took the land. I was born here. But that's not necessarily the reality of the situation. As Canadians, I think we all need to work towards reconciliation. And I hope that's a message that people get from seeing our show."

Essex said she views the play as a spark which will hopefully ignite more action around reconciliation.

"Being able to release this play after so many years, and at such a relevant time, I think we're seeing that spark be fanned into the fire and that we're moving on into that next stage of intergenerational healing for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. And that's terrifying, but so exciting."

The cast and crew of Stolen, Azhen include Joshua Audley, Keira Essex, Emma Kaminawash, Brook Malone, Jasmine Mcguire, Asia Polhill, Alexa Sagutcheway, Calli Thompson, Chase Lester, and Cornelius Beaver.

It was created in partnership with the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre and was supported with grants from the Thunder Bay Community Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council.

Stolen, Azhen will be released to the public on Magnus Theatre's Facebook, YouTube, and website on Friday, June 11th at 7 p.m.

If you need support, please contact the 24-hour National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 or Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

You can hear the full interview with Keira Essex and Danielle Chandler on CBC Superior Morning here.