Indigenous artists disappointed with Paris staging of controversial Robert Lepage play

Quebec playwright and stage director Robert Lepage is staging his contentious 'Kanata' play in Paris. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Innu writer Maya Cousineau Mollen travelled to Paris from Quebec hoping to find that Robert Lepage had heard the grievances of Indigenous artists about his play “Kanata.” But after attending a preview Saturday of the previously cancelled show, she came away disappointed.

“One of the things we asked (Lepage) when we met him over the summer, was for him to convince us that we didn’t need to be there,” Cousineau Mollen said in an interview from Paris Tuesday.

They wanted to be persuaded Lepage’s account was true enough to the Indigenous experience “that we didn’t need to be part of the project.”

READ MORE: Robert Lepage’s controversial ‘Kanata’ play to go ahead in Paris this December

From what she saw on the weekend, she said, “I wasn’t convinced.”

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What was initially billed as a premiere Saturday was downgraded to a dress rehearsal, and people who had paid for their tickets were offered refunds. The official premiere is now scheduled for Wednesday night.

READ MORE: Indigenous artists criticize SLAV director Lepage for new show ‘Kanata’

Last summer, Cousineau Mollen was one of about 30 Indigenous artists and activists who met with the internationally acclaimed director after a national controversy erupted over the production of “Kanata.”

The producers promised Kanata would explore Canada’s history “through the lens of the relationship between white and Aboriginal people.” But Indigenous activists and artists accused Lepage of producing a culturally insensitive play with little input from the communities portrayed. When the show’s North American co-producers backed out because of the controversy, Paris’s Theatre du Soleil cancelled its planned production of “Kanata” as part of a festival this month.

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Click to play video: 'What is cultural appropriation'
What is cultural appropriation

But in September, Lepage announced the show would go on, under a new name: “Kanata — Episode 1 — The Controversy.” Artists who saw the play last weekend said the new version focuses on missing and murdered Indigenous women in Vancouver. But as hinted at in the new title, there is a subplot of a non-Indigenous artist struggling with her right to portray Indigenous subjects.

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Cousineau Mollen said the production would have benefited from having an Indigenous person as co-director. She was particularly unsettled by a graphic scene in which a young Indigenous female character is murdered by a character modelled on Canadian serial killer Robert Pickton.

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READ MORE: No promises to change Kanata after Robert Lepage meets with show’s opponents

Pickton was arrested in 2002 and convicted of six counts of second-degree murder in 2007. The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on Pickton’s property in Port Coquitlam, B.C., and many of his victims were Indigenous. Cousineau Mollen said due in part to that “raw and violent” scene, the play “would not have been well received” in western Canada had it played there instead of Paris.

‘It wasn’t a work of art’

Guy Sioui Durand, a Huron sociologist and art critic, also travelled to Paris to see the show. He did not appreciate how Lepage incorporated the controversy surrounding the production within the plot.

A French painter grapples with whether she has the right to paint portraits of the murdered Indigenous women, he explained.

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PQ leader throws support behind Robert Lepage

“It’s as if by putting the controversy in the play, Lepage and the theatre are painting themselves as victims alongside the murdered women,” Sioui Durand said after returning to Montreal. “It doesn’t work. Nothing is settled.”

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His verdict is that the play “wasn’t great. It wasn’t a work of art.” But he prefers seeing Kanata staged to having it shut down.

Gerty Dambury, who is part of a Paris-based collective called “Decolonize the Arts,” invited Cousineau Mollen and Indigenous filmmaker Kim O’Bomsawin to Paris to see Lepage’s play. O’Bomsawin screened her documentary on missing and murdered Indigenous women at a separate event.

READ MORE: Robert Lepage says decision to cancel SLAV show ‘direct blow to artistic freedom’

Dambury said the French aren’t particularly sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation — when a dominant culture appropriates elements of a minority group’s culture.

“It’s not very much discussed” Dambury said from Paris. “And those who talk about it do so in a negative way.”

“They talk about it as a way to censor artists and to prevent them from doing what they want, how they want.”

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