Six Nations playwright makes directorial debut with Ipperwash

Playwright Falen Johnson makes her debut as a director this month with the play Ipperwash, a story rooted in Ontario history and a crisis with effects that continue to reverberate through local communities.

'Your land is your life and if you take your land away, then you're taking your life away,' says Falen Johnson

Samantha Brown as Kwe, Paula-Jean Prudat as Bea in Ipperwash. (Kaytee Dalton)

Six Nations playwright Falen Johnson makes her debut as a director this month with the play Ipperwash, a story rooted in Ontario history and a crisis with effects that continue to reverberate through local communities.

"It's about the importance of land to Indigenous people and the effect of displacement and dispossession," said Johnson.

"Your land is your life and if you take your land away, then you're taking your life away. They killed people by taking away their land and that's not an uncommon story in this country. I just want people to understand the impact of that."

The play is based on the events that led to the 1995 occupation of Ipperwash Provincial Park by members of the Stony Point Ojibway band where Ontario Provincial Police killed an unarmed protester during a raid on the protesters' camp. 

The play has been developed in consultation with the community members to see what they wanted the story to be, something Johnson said was critical for a community that has had its story told many times before.

"It's a story that's easily sensationalized so we wanted to make sure that we were taking it out of the realm of sensationalization and telling the story of what the crisis was and why it happened," said Johnson.

"The actual crisis was the land being disposed."

Falen Johnson has her directorial debut with Ipperwash, this month at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto. (Passport 2017)

During the Second World War, the Canadian Government wanted land belonging to the First Nation to create a military training camp. The band rejected the offer of $15 per acre which led the government to expropriate the land under the War Measures Act.

After the war, some of the land became Ipperwash Provincial Park while the rest remained a military base.

Engaging with people

Recognizing the importance of individual nationhood was an integral part of writing the piece, says Johnson. Even though she's Mohawk and Tuscarora, she was a guest on the Ojibway land and territory.

"We're different people and we have different histories and to make sure that I was walking on their land softly, making sure that I was being respectful and making sure that I did engage with people in a meaningful way," Johnson said.

Ipperwash originally debuted at the Blyth Festival last summer, directed by Jessica Carmichael and co-written by Johnson. But Johnson did a rewrite of the piece last fall when Keith Barker, artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, approached her to see what she was up to.

'A better understanding'

"It's about human relationships and human contact," said Keith who had seen the first version of Ipperwash.

"That's something anyone can buy into, anyone can listen and sympathize, then they have a better understanding. It's not an issue they read in the paper. This is about real people and things that are happening to them," he added.

Keith Barker, artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada's oldest professional Indigenous theatre company. (Christian Lloyd/Getting Captured Photography )

As a fan of the piece and of Johnson, he said it's great to be able to bring the play to Toronto because a lot of people from the city vacation in that area.

"It's also great again to be able to support a female Indigenous playwright," he said.

"People are going to see this and be excited about her."

Ipperwash runs at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto Feb. 6-18.

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.