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Children of God. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Canada Scene: Indigenous artists are in the spotlight at NAC fest

By Jessica Ruano on June 8, 2017

Without having seen any of the shows, can I just say how thrilled I am with the Canada Scene lineup?

First of all, three Canada Scene theatre productions – Children of God, Old Stock: a refugee love story, and Making Treaty 7 – are listed as musicals, and Les 7 doigts de la main returns with another dance-theatre circus show. Way to pull at my multidisciplinary heartstrings, CS.

Cheyenne Scott and Trish Lindstorm in Children of God. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Cheyenne Scott and Trish Lindstorm in Children of God. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Furthermore, another couple of shows – Trophy and Theatre in the Bush – take place outdoors. I admire a festival that takes a chance on rain, humidity,
mosquitoes, and heck, maybe even hail.

Trophy is a installation of 150+ tents and storytellers in the ByWard Market.

Trophy is a installation of 150+ tents and storytellers in the ByWard Market.

And then a bilingual event involving twenty-six writers in collaboration with the Ottawa International Writers Festival described as “a reconstruction of language and meaning”? Man, I love me some semiotics.

But aside from all that, I couldn’t help but notice that this particular festival seems to have made a point of featuring – and not merely including – indigenous artists, artists of colour, and artists with disabilities in their programming.

Because there is a difference, isn’t there? Despite our surface willingness to be inclusive and encourage diverse programming, many organizations and artists still fall prey to tokenism – attempts to tick boxes on grant applications and reach a bit beyond existing (usually white) audiences.

“We made sure that we were looking deeper than a cursory glance, but it’s always been our goal to do that,” says Heather Moore, Producer and Executive Director of Canada Scene, who regularly works with a team of people from across the country to collectively program the Scenes festivals.

“We have gotten to know more than the surface, more than the usual suspects – we’ve been able to work with diverse artists, with deaf and disabled artists. It certainly didn’t have to be an exercise. I mean, sure, do I have have to make sure I have something from right across the country? Absolutely. And did I make sure there were lots of women’s voices in there? You bet. But we didn’t ever have to compromise the quality of the work we were doing to do that.”

For those of you who are new to the Scenes, the festival series kicked off in 2003 with the Atlantic Scene, and has returned to the nation’s capital every two years since then to focus on a different region in Canada. After a period of financial uncertainty due to funding challenges in the mid 90s, the National Arts Centre was keen to revisit what it meant to be a national institution, and the Scenes were an important part of that.

“In doing all these Scenes festivals, I’ve learned more about this country, I’ve learned more about issues and topics and things that are of interest to us than I’ve ever learned by going to a lecture about it or reading about it in a history book,” says Moore, who has been working with the Scenes since 2005.

Canada Scene features over 100 events and more than 1,000 artists from
June 15 to July 23, during the peak of Canada 150 celebrations… a national initiative that has been controversial, to say the least – with part of the country keen to celebrate Canada’s achievements, and another part pointing out that what we are celebrating is 150+ years of genocide on unceded Indigenous territory.

Members of the OO7 Collective. Image courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

Members of the OO7 Collective. Image courtesy of the National Arts Centre.

“We’ve got artists who are saying both. And we’ve got artists who aren’t commenting on it at all,” says Moore, who refers to, as an example of artists who have plenty to say, an exhibition titled It’s Complicated by the OO7 Collective. Their show is about the relationship that Indigenous people have with the idea of Canada 150.

“[OO7 Collective] say, if there’s any reason for celebration by Indigenous people in 150, it’s a celebration of perseverance and survival – hence the name of the exhibition.”

Amanda Rheaume. Photo by Jen Squires.

Amanda Rheaume. Photo by Jen Squires.

Rather than leaving programming decisions to the NAC staff exclusively, Canada Scene has made it a priority to recruit artistic leaders in their communities to select the artists and work that they feel best represents them. ShoShona Kish of Digging Roots, for example, was invited to program Anishinabekwe, an evening of music and musical storytelling featuring five female Indigenous artists, including Tanya Tagaq and Ottawa’s own Amanda Rheaume.

“This is a big conversation going on with arts organizations. We’re hearing from the younger generation on issues of diversity, inclusiveness, indigeneity, and it’s about the whole institution. And that’s why the NAC is starting an Indigenous Theatre department, because it has to be at the institutional level,” says Moore.

While Canada Scene is the final festival in the Scenes series, in two years time Ottawa can look forward to the launch of the National Arts Centre’s Indigenous Theatre – which may also include music, dance, and storytelling performances, going beyond a conventional understanding of “theatre,” and exploring how we can more accurately and comprehensively showcase Canada.

Canada Scene takes place in a variety of locations, including Canada’s National Arts Centre from June 15 to July 23. Check back with Apartment 613 for additional previews and reviews on our website and podcast.