Review by Ellen S, Jaffee
“To be or not to be – friends?” That is the question confronting two contemporary children in Calgary, Alberta. Girl #1, Alanna, played by Elizabeth Ferguson-Breaker (Naaton Ainihki), a Blackfoot, and Girl #2, Maya, Lara Schmitz, who has English-French-Irish heritage. They meet on the first day of school; it is A’s first time in a city school, with few if any Indigenous students. They are about to shyly say hello when the Trickster, a traditional Blackfoot character, strides down through the audience and leaps on stage to interrupt them. “NO, you can’t be friends.” Why not? “Because of the story.” *
Thus begins We Are All Treaty People, currently at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto. The play, now in its 4th season, was created by the Original Artists of Making Treat 7 and is co-produced by Quest Theatre and the Making Treaty Seven Cultural Society. Drumming and chanting off-stage sets the scene as the audience waits for the play to begin. The actors introduce themselves to the audience before the play begins, and then say a traditional prayer. As the Trickster, played with strength, humour and compassion by Marshall Vielle (Natay’Ao’Tako) tells the historical story of Indigenous people in the Albert area around Calgary, the scene of Treaty 7, the modern world fades. The actors, including the two girls and the two musicians onstage, Curt Young and Sonia Dello as well as the Trickster, portray a variety of characters, from the Buffalo – plentiful and flourishing until they were almost wiped out by the “newcomers” – to figures like Queen Victoria, John A. MacDonald, and Duncan Campbell Scott (who said “I want to get rid of the Indian problem” and take the Indian out of the child.) Ferguson-Breaker and Schmitz play together well; they have a interesting physical contrast and yet a strong sense of empathy and connection. Dello on guitar, Curt playing drum and flute add their presence as well as their music.
Scott Reid’s simple but effective set consists of a wooden structure that at first seems more natural, like trees, mountains, tall grass, but then becomes a fence, even a wall, on which to hang historical symbols – and to separate people. There are also two circular platforms for the actors to use. Both the wooden structure and the platforms are draped with symbolic colours: red, yellow, white, and black. Jennifer Lennon’s lighting design is low-key but effective, helping the audience feel included.
Co-directors Troy Emery Twigg and Nikki Loach and the company do a wonderful job in keeping the story serious and meaningful, yet appealing to young people, with occasional interaction, even flashes of humour. At the performance I attended, my partner and I (there without children) noticed the rapt, often appalled attention of the children around us as the Trickster and other characters talked about the smallpox epidemic that killed over 80% of the people, and other hardships. The play emphasized how hungry and weakened the people were by the newcomers’ incursions, and why they signed Treaty 7 which promised to take care of them. (It was signed on 22 September 1877 by five First Nations: the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee). But they are tricked – money and care does not come; their land is taken for the railroad and other uses, and the children are sent to residential schools. The residential school issue is played subtly but with deep feeling: the “schools” are represented as a small, brown wooden box that the Trickster warns Maya not to touch when she finds it in his bag. Later, he hands it to her and she feels it as a heavy, dangerous weight. We also see Alanna as an indigenous mother, her baby taken from her arms by a white official, over her protests. The trickster says this ongoing story is too hurtful for the girls to be friends in the present. But they have other ideas. “If my people made the treaty and broke it, I’m responsible for fixing it,” says Maya. And Alanna reminds us that Indigenous people are now returning to their languages, making art, becoming teachers, writers, scientists. The trickster threatens to tell her Grandma, and then we hear Grandma’s voice, off-stage, saying everyone can be a leader.
There is a short q & a session after the show, and the questions the young people asked were all relevant: why were the newcomers so greedy, why did they want the land, what happened to the residential schools. The children realized that “we are all treaty people” as all Canadians have been affected by the treaties; that even ones made “long ago” have an impact today, and we can decide to work together to make things better. It is good to see more plays produced and performed by Indigenous people and groups on Toronto’s main stages: Kiviuq Returns at the Tarragon and now this play.
We Are All Treaty People runs through Feb. 22 at YPT, with both public and school performances. I hope many schools were able to use this opportunity to help students and teachers gain more insight into Indigenous issues in Alberta and around the nation, and consider hope for the future.