Children of God
at the Segal Centre
Musical exposes the abusive native residential school system
By Byron Toben
Hard to believe that the patronizing Canadian mandatory residential school system set up back in 1857 lasted as long as 1996!
Some 130 such schools were set up, conscripting over 150,000 young children (7 to 15 years old). Churches were sub contracted to operate the schools – 60% were Roman Catholic and 40% various Protestant sects.
The stated goal was to assimilate the First Nation, Meti and Inuit kids into the Canadian culture. This involved forbidding their languages and practices. Some motives may have been misguided attempts to benefit the youth, but the results were disastrous. High ratios of disease, death and schooling failures ensued. Roughly 40% of the teachers had no training. Stories of physical and sexual abuse surfaced. Today, there are still about 80,000 adult survivors.
The stated goal was to assimilate the First Nation, Meti and Inuit kids into the Canadian culture. This involved forbidding their languages and practices.
To me, this all seems Dickensian North.
Enlightenment slowly began with closing of some schools in the 1970s, although the last one, as mentioned above, was in 1996. The wheels of the Gods grind slowly indeed.
Finally, in 2015, the National Centre For Truth And Reconciliation was set up in Winnipeg and some restitution initiated.
The above background does not seem like a suitable vehicle for a musical, yet, the Lord works in mysterious ways, His or Her wonders to perform and this musical by Cory Payette is a multi-faceted wonder of sorts.
No fears of cultural appropriation here. Mr Payette is an Oji-Cree who has worked as a playwright, actor, composer and director. This musical is a co-production of Vancouver Urban Ink and the Segal Centre.
The plot tracks some students enrolled in the 1950s and how they turned out in the 1970s.
‘… the rousing finale, the full company led by Rita pounding on a native drum… voicing Baamaapli Ka Wab Migo. That last song brought the full audience to its feet.’
The school involved is headed by Father Christopher (David Keeley), assisted by Sister Bernadette (Sarah Carle). Siblings Tommy (Dillan Chiblow, an Ojibway story teller) and Julia (Cheyenne Scott, a Coast Salish theatre performer) are separated from their mother Rita (Michelle St. John, a co-founder of a Toronto native women’s theatre company.)
Tommy and Julia, though further separated from each other at the school, often become Runners, escaping from the school and hoping to return home through miles of wilderness, only to become recaptured.
Each develops friendships with other youngsters enrolled, Tommy with Vincent (Jacob Macinnis) and Wilson (Aaron M. Wells of Nuu-Chah-Nuith and Ts’mysen heritage) and Julia with Joanna (Michelle Bardach, a member of the Squamish nation) and Elizabeth (Kaitlyn Yott, of Haida background).
These nine talented performers are joined on stage by a four-piece live band (piano, viola, cello and guitar).
The company punctuates their dramatic bits with 15 songs, three of which are reprised. The titles speak of the students desperation, for example, What Do they Take Us For, Who I Was, Homeward Bound, and Their Spirits are Broken.
Two songs are in a native tongue – Gimikenden Ina (Do You Remember) and the rousing finale, the full company led by Rita pounding on a native drum (which looks very like an Irish bodhran) voicing Baamaapli Ka Wab Migo (Until We See You Again). That last song brought the full audience to its feet.
It is fitting that this musical was mounted at the Segal Centre as the Jews are also among the peoples bedevilled by attempts to eradicate them or their heritage.
Children of God at the Segal Centre until February 10.
Images Emily Cooper
Read more articles from Byron Toben
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.
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