Lepage Still White-Washing as ‘Kanata’ Opens in Paris?

The story of the show is as offensive as the story being told.

A scene from Robert Lepage's "Kanata." Photo: Théâtre du Soleil.

This past weekend, Robert Lepage’s Kanata premiered in France. Lepage’s company, Ex Machina, isn’t co-producing. Lepage is still directing, without remuneration.

Some back-story is needed to understand why this is still a problem. Let’s go way back.

Canada and the US share a similar history: ships of white men came to shore, claimed the land as their own, and tried to eradicate the Indigenous people already living here. Today, when we congratulate ourselves with terms like “color brave” and “cultural appropriation,” the fact is that whiteness still dominates pretty much everything. Very little has changed, no matter how far we’ve come.

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In Canada, we have another term: “truth and reconciliation.” As a result of its current application, we have 94 calls to action wreaking havoc on how things run — including the arts and culture sector. Suddenly, it seems, Indigenous stories belong to Indigenous people! Professional Indigenous artists want to play themselves on stage. And there is a national collective understanding that cultural appropriation is bad. Progress is in the air.

Except if you’re Lepage, a Quebec-based icon of theater-making whose vision for Kanata (an Iroquois word meaning “village”) means to retrace 200 years of white and Indigenous relationships in Canada. We’re talking fur trade all the way up to residential schools and missing, murdered Indigenous women. According to one recent story on Kanata, the piece includes how Indigenous children were “forcibly taken from their parents and sent to residential schools notorious for their abuse and neglect.”

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When Kanata was being produced in Canada, Lepage’s cast, production crew and creative team were all white. Not one artist involved was Indigenous. What Lepage did have was a team of Indigenous consultants, mostly due to our Canadian climate of truth and reconciliation. Margo Kane, artistic director of Full Circle First Nations Performance, was one of them. In a National Post story on her role as consultant on Kanata, she asserted:

You’re just using our names to put a stamp on it that you did your due diligence.

Her view was that anything you could call “consultation” was going in one of Lepage’s ears and out the other.

Last summer, an outcry of resistance rippled across Canada. As a result, two letters were written. One of them, published in Le Devoir, was signed by 30 local Indigenous artists. The second was written by Kevin Loring, artistic director of Indigenous Theatre at National Arts Centre of Canada. It included this admonishment to Lepage:

It is not sufficient to engage the Indigenous community merely to extract their knowledge and perspectives in order to seem to be doing your due artistic diligence, or to incorporate those perspectives into your imagined version of our very real stories, and yet willfully refuse to engage Indigenous Artists in the telling of that story.

More than 500 Indigenous artists signed this second letter. Myself included.

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In response, Lepage and his co-producer, Ariane Mnouchkine (of the Paris-based Théâtre du Soleil) agreed to a meeting back in July. Some 34 Indigenous artists engaged with the company in six hours of dialogue. Ideas were offered. How about an Indigenous costume designer to re-imagine the costumes? How about including Indigenous actors? How about inviting an Elder to lead an opening at the start of the play? In an interview in the National Observer, Nakuset, Executive Director of the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter said this:

We were offering Lepage so many points of views, so many ways to include us, and he basically said, ‘No, thanks.’

Rather than create any action toward genuine reconciliation, any movement toward genuine collaboration, any humility toward genuine cultural redress, Lepage canceled the show. In North America. “I really did not expect to face such anger,” he told Radio Canada. He compared the reaction to an out-of-control forest fire.

A message from the burning bush.

And now, as noted, Kanata has opened in France and the question I’m left with is: can we learn from this example? I will end by quoting Loring’s open letter to Lepage:

The healthy collaboration between Indigenous and Settler artists and companies has been and will continue to be a vital source of inspiration and understanding. These partnerships engender the creation of dynamic art that is authentic and nuanced.

If only Lepage agreed with that.