By Stephen Cook. Stephen is a son of YEG and new to YOW. He currently studies journalism at Carleton University. Twitter/IG: @stephencooked
The very opening of Sir John A. Macdonald, The Musical is set in the present with Idle No More activists protesting at the City Park Macdonald statue in Kingston. When the scene ends and the stage darkens, a booming voice asks of Macdonald’s legacy: “Father of Confederation or Father of Apartheid?”
The former, I guess, if we go by this show.
Macdonald, presented by Maple Leaf Theatre productions, chronicles the political career of Canada’s first Prime Minister in song and (a little) dance. The performance is community theatre, a small local production furnished with amateurs who work hard to give the audience the best show they can. There are some standouts: Reba Sigler as Lady Agnes MacDonald sings wonderfully and Ron Clarke as Louis Riel is so energetic I wish he were the protagonist.
The biggest problem is the show’s take on Macdonald. Writer Gord Carruth’s rendition seems to be carried along by destiny rather than driving it, taking time for introspective solos while letting supporting characters herald his meteoric rise. This Macdonald doesn’t act so much as he is described, possibly to give room for the audience’s own interpretation of events.
This laissez-faire approach becomes problematic in Act II during the Red River uprising and the North-West Resistance episodes, which seemingly transpire without Macdonald’s culpability. And although we get a scene in Parliament where he is questioned about the irregularities of Riel’s trial and execution – the use of an obscure 1342 British treason law, the movement of the trial from Winnipeg to Regina, the proceedings in English rather than French – Macdonald’s connection is only ever implied.
We have enough documented evidence of Macdonald’s opinion of “half-breeds,” as he called the Metis, to exclude this vagueness. We have the infamous Macdonald attribution, “He shall die though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour,” and even Richard Gwyn, in the biography Nation Maker, flat-out declares that Macdonald “seems to have regarded it as his duty to see [the execution] through.”
Last month, the National Arts Centre put on Drew Hayden Taylor’s play Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion. While a very different production, Taylor’s rendering manages to capture the surface charm of the Scot while still revealing the racist vitriol underneath. There, Macdonald acts in the place of antagonist, a spectre that figuratively and literally haunts the protagonists of the central narrative.
Meanwhile Carruth’s Macdonald hardly voices a thought towards Riel, the Metis or Indigenous Peoples. The story somehow doesn’t even mention the Indian Act or the residential school system but instead focuses on political scandal and corruption. And while I don’t expect nuanced character analysis or political engagement from a musical, these choices are still remarkably tone-deaf.
“Maybe not now but history has a voice and that voice will be heard,” says Riel at one point during his trial scene.
He could have been commenting on the show itself.
Sir John A. Macdonald: The Musical will be at the Centrepointe Theatre for two more performances: Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 4 at 1:30 p.m. More information can be found online.