'It tells a truth that has been kept secret': Children of God brings residential school story to the stage

A modern musical that sheds light on the painful experience of residential schools has broken new ground in Indigenous Canadian theatre. Children of God was eight years in the making, and is the passion piece of Oji-Cree playwright and composer Corey Payette.
Children of God by written and directed by Corey Payette. Production Design (Set/Costume/Props) by Marshall McMahen. Lighting Design by Jeff Harrison. An Urban Ink Production presented by Citadel Theatre and Western Canada Theatre. Actors: Kaitlyn Yott, Aaron M. Wells, Cheyenne Scott, Dillan Chiblow, Raes Calvert, Michelle Bardach, and Sandy Scofield. (David Cooper)
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Originally published June 3, 2018.

By Jennifer Chrumka

A modern musical that sheds light on the painful experience of residential schools has broken new ground in Indigenous Canadian theatre. Children of God was eight years in the making, and is the passion piece of Oji-Cree playwright and composer Corey Payette.

Payette is from the Mattagami First Nation, but he wasn't raised in his culture or with any knowledge of it passed down through family members.

Children of God wrapped up its first major tour this spring but because of its success, it will tour again, with two performances already scheduled in 2019 in Montreal and Vancouver.

Children of God was written and directed by Corey Payette. Production Design (Set/Costume/Props) by Marshall McMahen. Lighting Design by Jeff Harrison. An Urban Ink Production presented by Citadel Theatre and Western Canada Theatre. Actors: David Keeley, Sarah Carlé, Dillan Chiblow, Cheyenne Scott, Kaitlyn Yott, Aaron M. Wells, Raes Calvert, Michelle Bardach, and Sandy Scofield. (David Cooper)
Seeing his musical performed on mainstream stages across the country has been an overwhelming experience and dream come true for Payette. "I don't know if I'll ever do such a meaningful show [again]," he said.

Through music and dance the musical follows two siblings, Tommy and Julia, who leave home to attend residential school. Their mother Rita, a survivor herself, watches helplessly and horrified, as she was never let past the school gate. The play then jumps ahead in time to reveal the lasting impacts on the family.

It's a story that Payette believes could change the world. "If people knew this history and could understand it at a personal level, from a way in that you could start to see it through the eyes of this family. That's what I missed. That's what I needed as a young person. I needed to know it as a personal story."


Children of God writer and director, Corey Payette. (Mique'l Dangeli)
Payette used his own original music score to convey the characters emotions that are "simply beyond words." He describes how, "when a character can no longer speak, they sing. That's how I approach musical theatre writing."

He also spent countless hours interviewing residential school survivors to draw out the personal and keep himself on track. Payette recalled an especially significant encounter sitting on the back of a pick up truck with a man from Williams Lake who talked about the importance of forgiveness.

"What he said to me was that if he had not forgiven and gone through a lifelong process of healing, that he would have died… Because you can't survive it. So he said to me 'I hope that you're not just going to make [Children of God] about the traumas that happened and also include what the big picture looked like and what it would take to heal from this."

While it is a story about the struggles of one Oji-Cree family, the show carries a larger message of resilience and redemption for all of those who lived through the residential school system.

Lori Marchand is the managing director for Indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre. She's been closely involved with the production of Children of God and described the play as profoundly beautiful.

"It tells a truth that has been kept secret. Sometimes when the truth is revealed it leaves us a little raw," Marchand said. "But I love the fact that even through the truth-telling there is the power of love, the power of family, the power of hope and the power of resolution."


Children of God will be on stage in Montreal at The Segal Centre for Performing Arts from January 20th to February 10th, 2019 and at Vancouver's York Theatre from February 20th to March 10th, 2019.

Correction: Corey Payette was incorrectly identified as being from Matachewan First Nation, he is from  Mattagami First Nation.