Return to Ottawa

For my blog, I’ve been relating the events at each place chronologically but during our few days here, one thing stands out so much that I’m inclined to lead with it. Because I left the Train of Thought northern Ontario route for several days to be in Ottawa for the TRC final report, I missed the chance to visit the home of the renowned Indigenous theatre company Debajemuhjig on Manitoulin Island. I knew when I made that choice that I would be seeing them anyway since the Debaj show The Global Savages was scheduled to be performed as part of the Magnetic North Theatre festival. I knew about this show already since I met the actors last year in Rotterdam at the International Community Arts Festival but I wasn’t able to see it then and have been looking forward to getting another chance. It is 7pm and the show is performed outdoors at the foot of a hilly slope abutting the Rideau Locks. The Ottawa River stretches out to our left and we in the audience stretch out on the grass. The actors have set themselves a tall order performing 500 years of their history as Indigenous people in a story that in fact reaches back to a time of legend. They achieve it thrillingly with grace and mastery, humour and vulnerability. This is a fusion of storytelling and a narrative play with four actors, each character a distinct archetype that simultaneously reads as an utterly authentic, believable person. If you ever have a chance to see them perform, don’t miss it.

Another highlight of our time in Ottawa is a workshop with Suzanne Keeptwo, an Anishanabe métis educator and theatre professional based here. A few years ago, the church-based social action group KAIROS created an educational activity called “The Blanket Exercise” designed to promote empathy and understanding about the lived experience of First Nations people in Canada. Although I haven’t experienced it first-hand, I’ve been hearing about it for some time. I’ve actually been approached by two different people asking my advice on how they might ramp up the theatrical elements of the activity. Suzanne has taken it upon herself to adapt The Blanket Exercise into a series of performance-based elements that, as I understand it, radically revise the activity while retaining its intent. Members of our group are joined by local participants who heard about it through the Magnetic North festival. This is the work of our Train of Thought project—often co-investigating our themes alongside residents of whatever community we are visiting.

Suzanne’s workshop brings up one of the core challenges of relying on affect, or a heart-based approach, to engage with the themes and issues of the legacy of colonization and the residential schools. It was the same challenge we faced with From the Heart. How do you use theatre to tap into an empathetic response without, as Julie Salverson articulates it, either re-traumatizing people or leveraging real stories of trauma for the sake of generating a dramatic effect? In From the Heart, we anchored the relationship between performers and audience in the spirit of an invitation to witness stories about Indigenous experience that had meaning for us as settler Canadians—that mattered to us and “summoned” us to see our own relationships with our country’s past and our personal connection with Native people in a different way. And we created a space for the audience to have a period of reflection built into the show. Suzanne’s adaptation of the Blanket Exercise succeeds resoundingly well in some ways and in my opinion also stumbles in a couple of places. And so we all continue to learn how to move forward together in Canada—how to become better allies across cultural differences, and to find our way through art and performance.

During our time in Ottawa I manage to squeeze in some engaging conversations about life and art and our experiences of the journey on this project. One night I’m at a sushi restaurant with Marcia Krawll, who has again hosted me in her home while I’m in Ottawa, and we get a chance to know each other a little better. Another night, after slogging through the pouring rain, Cathy Stubington and I find a cheap East Indian restaurant and talk shop for hours. One morning we converge at the Rideau Canal for a picnic and a chance for a little public art engagement. Cathy has brought her big beautiful vegetable and fruit ribbons and, as we did in Winnipeg, we invite the passersby to join in a celebration of locally grown food by taking part in the weaving.


Later that afternoon I go on a long walk with Savannah Walling. We find our way to Asinabka, a place sacred to the Algonquin people. These days it is known as Victoria Island. We are going there with the hope of visiting Susan Martin who has been camped on the island since April 26. We learned from Susanne Keeptwo that Susan welcomes visitors who support her vigil. Down a winding path through the trees we find her. Today her granddaughter is there with her along with two others. Thirteen years ago, in 2002, Susan’s daughter, Terrie Ann Dauphinais, a musician and mother of three with dreams of one day becoming a pediatrician, was murdered at the age of 24. The police have given up on the case and, as we know, the federal government refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem on a national scale. Keeping and tending a sacred fire on this island, Susan is hoping to call attention to the need to make the investigation of the missing and murdered a priority of the nation. She offers us tea. We sit and talk and extend our support of her work there. Susan offers Savannah and me some sage or tobacco to place in the fire with a prayer if we wish to, and we both gratefully accept the invitation. We offer her small gifts of support in return. I give my thanks in the way I have learned from my First Nations teachers, folding paper money into a small square and, without any big display, simply passing it to her subtly in the act of shaking her hand. After a while, we take our leave. Before we go, Susan’s young granddaughter offers us each a keepsake, a small stone from the island. I will not soon forget this day.

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