Last summer, Robert Lepage’s theatre production, Kanata, sparked controversy. The play, a collaboration between Ex-Machina and the French theatre company Théâtre du Soleil, addresses the relationships between Canadians and Indigenous peoples. It focuses on residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and “Indigenous junkies in Vancouver”, according to an earlier description. The absence of Indigenous actors, however, immediately drew criticism.
Further investigation into Lepage’s artistic and creative process revealed disturbing patterns. He claimed that he had consulted Indigenous people across Canada, but many rejected the term “consultations,” saying they were only conversations. None of them were part of the full process and many advised Lepage to have Indigenous actors in the cast.
In the end, Lepage and his collaborator, French director Ariane Mnouchkine, cherry-picked what they wanted and went their own way with the show without collaborating with the people they had met. It seems to be a recurring pattern for Lepage. Last summer, his play SLĀV was removed from the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s program after it created a controversy for similar reasons – in this case, white performers singing slave songs.
I was uncomfortable with the idea that non-Indigenous actors would act my father’s experience of residential school on stage. If no Indigenous people were involved in the process, would it be accurate? Lepage’s play will be presented in France this winter (from December 15 to February 17), and some audience members could base their knowledge of Canada’s colonial history on this production.
In July, I was one of 34 artists, actors and community activists who participated in a meeting with Lepage and Mnouchkine in order to express our concerns. Their entitlement threw me off. “We know what we are doing. Trust us!” was one of the only answers we got.
Given the controversy, investors backed out and Kanata was cancelled until the two theatre groups announced that they would finance it themselves and stage it in France. “You will see for yourself if it is good or not and then after you can criticize the show,” Lepage said.
Realistically, most Indigenous people couldn’t afford the ticket to the play, much less the cost of flying to Paris. Their press release announcing the show would go on was arrogant. It is insulting to be fed the argument that they are not breaking any laws when the only thing we did was to express our concerns. It is distressing to think that they could dishonour my father’s experience or his siblings who carry themselves with such poise and dignity despite their years in residential school.
Lepage tried to pit Indigenous folks against one another, saying that some of them agreed with his approach. He also tried to pit us against black people who criticized his play SLĀV – saying we were less aggressive than they had been.
In general, Lepage and Mnouchkine missed a great opportunity to learn from and have a respectful dialogue with Indigenous people. The only thing we wanted was to ensure we would be well represented. I still wonder why they didn’t collaborate with an Indigenous theatre company like Onishka. Instead, they tell us they didn’t violate the laws of the French Republic and then changed the play’s name to Kanata – Episode I – The Controversy.
The only thing we can do now, I guess, is to wait for the reviews.