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Theatre of Healing (1995-1997)

Theatre as a tool for Social Transformation

I believe that the blossoming of the indigenous people comes through art and culture; I believe that art is the essential mainspring from which to access dignity. ˆ -Yves Sioui Durand

In November 1994, Ondinnok was about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The production of noted works throughout the decade had rooted the myths and beliefs of the First Nations in a very real dramaturgy directly echoing the real lives and battles of indigenous peoples. A rich living theatrical heritage was under construction. Nevertheless in this period, Ondinnok had to face major issues that threw into question the very existence of the company. In spite of the quality of the productions, Montréal audiences were few and the payment to the artists was slight (almost non-existent). At this crossroad, a major re-examination faced Yves and Catherine: How to go on?

Then with the intervention of Délima Niquay a leader in her community an invitation arrived from the Mikisiw Circle for Hope in Manawan to start a Theatre of Healing on their reserve. A new path for Ondinnok began to be mapped out. With the production of Sun Raiser at the Banff Centre for the Arts, the company set off on a new trajectory in two directions which, while certainly different, were nevertheless complimentary.

Ondinnok dedicated the following years from 1995 to 1997 to the development at Manawan of a group Theatre of Healing and a process of creation based on an artistic and cultural approach connected to their identity.

In the end, important connections for the future of the company have been built up in two directions; one with people from the communities and the other with the Canadian First Nation theatrical community. Close to home, in a small Québec Aboriginal community with amateur actors under difficult working conditions. Further afield, in a large international festival with professional Aboriginal actors from across Canada and with extraordinary resources.

History of the community project

For certain members of the Atikamekw community in Manawan, their first experience awakened an ongoing interest in theatre. A dozen members had participated in a daylong workshop on theatrical creation and succeeded in completing a scenario based on real life experiences around the theme of sexual abuse. The play was later produced with professional actors from the Parminou company. It was presented in the community on November 13th and 14th 1993.

Theatre had existed previously in the Atikamekw culture. The elders’ practice of shamanistic representation and ritual had fallen into oblivion some years earlier. Therefore there was no forum in the community for public dialogue. Participation in this first theatre project allowed many to begin to break the layers of silence.

It took something like the theatre for our people to see, as in a mirror, what really happened and where they would have ended up had they continued to destroy themselves one against the other like that. That had a big impact! So much so that we took the instrument into our own hands and developed it. ˆ-Thérèse Quitish-Dubé, member of Theatre of Healing and performer in Opitowap

This initiative lay at the centre of a much larger process – a collective re-examination of alcohol and drug abuse that had begun in the community in 1989. Wishing to pursue an approach to healing anchored in theatre and local resources, the members of the Mikisiw Circle for Hope had made a call to Ondinnok. They believed, with reason, that only an Aboriginal theatre company could understand and work with them while respecting their identity. For the community of Manawan, this theatrical approach had the specific objective of countering violence in all its forms ˆ notably the darkest ˆand above all to understand its source and its breadth.

The creation of a three year program of theatre training workshops has launched the whole of the community onto an affirmative path both as actor-creators and as listener-watchers.

Collective wounds like incest, drugs and family violence have been broached but always in tune with spirituality, with the dreams of each member and with their strong desire to reconnect with their culture. This growing awareness of collective words and actions peacefully took place to the vibrations of the drum in the hearts and in the very essence of the people. For Ondinnok these three years would be a time of apprenticeship in the realities of the day by day life in an Aboriginal community and a discovery of its cultural richness buried under the rags of modernity.

A Three Way Program

From the beginning, the members of the theatre group have expressed an active desire to rediscover their ancestral culture and to express it. They felt it was the key to their healing. After so many years of alienation, the Atikamekw like so many other Canadian First Nations have gone on to identify the causes of their suffering and to seek justice. In 1996 their tongues were about to be untied and the horrors of the Indian boarding schools were soon to be revealed to the light of day.

What do I think? It’s a formidable experience. It wipes out fear. The ghosts can go and put their clothes back on. Ha! Ha! Ha! It makes us take stock of our interior and exterior circle. The body develops, the heart awakes. Our power is set in motion to create the work. Through this performance I have found an Opitowap. It’s that strong, I swear! ˆ –Marie-Louise Niquay, Atikamek author and poet, member of Theatre of Healing and actor in Opitowap

Three plays (Opitowap, Sakipitcikan and Mantokasowin) were created by the group. Each production was a small victory over the prevailing despair caused by numerous suicides, bouts of alcoholism and the lack of resources. Theatre was more effective than the many therapies already attempted. The actors had to overcome their own demons and commit a great deal of time and energy in the construction of each play. Richard Moar, a pillar of the group, was also the chief of police. Thérèse Ottawa had six children. Most of the young participants of the group were in school. Each of these plays was written during a specific phase of the community’s healing process. Many people refused to speak of the wounds that they had suffered and criticized the theatre that dared to lift the veil on a painful past. The drum, the stones, the fire and the prayers permitted the actors to touch their deepest wounds and to lift themselves up towards a level of true self awareness. The theatre permitted them to surpass themselves, to connect with their inner strength and feed their imagination, to rediscover their power to dream and, together, to construct a different future.

I lived outside of my community for nearly twenty years. When I began to do theatre, I came back here with my small family. I have learnt a lot doing theatre; I have reconnected to my culture and that has helped me reintegrate my Atikamek way of life. ˆ –Rosalia Petiquay, member of Theatre of Healing, performer in Mantokasowin and Le Rendez-vous/kiskimew 

More than twenty people ages 11 to 55 mostly originally from Manawan but also from Wemotaci have actively participated in the creation of the Atikamekw community Theatre of Healing. People of talent have been discovered: actors, musicians, courageous artists who continue still to this day to deepen their culture through their art or through guiding others. A genuine exchange has taken place. Ondinnok has assisted Manawan and its theatre group to give back hope and faith in the development of an authentic First Nations theatre. From the engagement with Manawan was born the idea to develop an intensive Aboriginal theatre training program.

Why tell stories? Imagination and naivety are at the centre of all childhood. The death of the imagination is the result of all violence. Violence, abuse, rape are the opposite of imagination, are acts deprived of all imagination. ˆ –Yves Sioui Durand