Indigenous artists disappointed over cancellation of controversial play, Kanata

Indigenous artists who criticised the production over lack of Indigenous involvement say they are "saddened" by the cancellation.

Critics wanted to collaborate on its portrayal of First Nations

Quebec director Robert Lepage cancelled his production, Kanata, which was to be performed by French actors in Paris, after some of its North American co-producers withdrew from the project. (Théâtre du Soleil)

Indigenous artists say they're disappointed that Quebec director Robert Lepage cancelled his French-language play Kanata rather than change it to address their concerns.

The play aimed to retell "Canada's history through the prisms of relations between whites and Indigenous people," according to a description by the Paris-based theatre that planned to present it.

Lepage said Thursday it was cancelled after some of the North American co-producers withdrew support  from the project.

"That's not what we were asking for," said Charles Bender, a Huron-Wendat actor.

"What we were hoping for was a collaboration that would validate our experiences toward that. As an artist, I find it very disappointing that it would have to come to cancellation instead of better collaboration or better dialogue."

After the release of an open letter criticizing the production, Bender was one of 34 artists, actors and community activists who attended a July 19 meeting between Lepage and Ariane Mnouchkine, founder of  the Paris-based Théâtre du Soleil which was to mount the play in December.  

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

The same group that issued the letter published in Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper earlier this month said they've continued a dialogue with Lepage and Mnouchkine's teams following the meeting and are "saddened" by the cancellation.

"In no way did we believe that this conclusion would be a solution to the lack of collaboration," the group said in a  statement. "We support creators and defend freedom of artistic expression."

They also said they'd be open to future collaborations proposed by Ex Machina, Lepage's production company.

Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, a Cree opinion columnist and daughter of MP Romeo Saganash, attended the meeting over Skype and said the group made a number of suggestions on how to incorporate Indigenous voices.

Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash, a Cree opinion columnist, is disappointed about the cancellation of Kanata. (Submitted by Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash)

"I'm pretty disappointed about that because a lot of us put anger aside even though we were really entitled to our own anger," she said.

"I'm really disappointed that he'd rather cancel the show than work with Indigenous people. There was controversy around it, if he decided to change his ways and work with us, there would be no controversy for his co-producers."

For Stephen Puskas, an Inuk visual artist and filmmaker based in Montreal, the cancellation is a missed opportunity for people to learn about Indigenous issues around representation.

"We need to start looking at changing institutions to better reflect the citizens in our country. But also to better educate people, in this case artists, about what it means to be someone living the story that they're telling."

"Because they can go off and tell other stories in the future. But we continue to live that story and we're the ones living with the consequences of the stories they tell about us."

More dialogue needed

Kevin Loring, artistic director of Indigenous theatre at the Ottawa-based National Arts Centre of Canada, also said the cancellation "not a victory."

"It's an unfortunate example of what happens when [you]  don't engage with the people you're trying to portray in a meaningful way," said Loring.

Playwright, actor, and teacher Kevin Loring is the first-ever artistic director of Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

Last week, he issued an open letter that garnered more than 500 signatures in support of Indigenous artists in Quebec.

He says there needs to be a national discussion on the best way to engage with Indigenous peoples on the issues of identity and culture.

"We have such a deep history of our Indigenous stories being extracted by folks who have no connection to our communities to our cultures and by doing so creating misunderstanding and treating our culture, ours songs, and practices as a commodity," said Loring.

"For indigenous people it's beyond art, it's our culture, our songs and our dances. Stories are traditionally wrapped up within our spirituality and our identity."

About the Author

Jessica Deer


Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. A former staff reporter for the Eastern Door, she works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.