Stage Door Review 2019

We Are All Treaty People

Feb 12, 2019

✭✭✭✩✩

by the Original Artists of Making Treaty 7, directed by Troy Emery Twigg & Nikki Loach

Quest Theatre & Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society, Young People’s Theatre, Toronto

February 11-22, 2019

“To be or not to be your friend”

We Are All All Treaty People, currently playing at Young People’s Theatre, looks at a basic question that many young Canadians may have in the wake of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015. The question as formulated by the play created by Alberta’s Original Artists of Making Treaty 7 is: “After all that White people have done to First Nations people in Canada, how can we be friends?” The 45-minute-long play meant to answer that question is much more a theatricalized history lesson than a play and its greatest use will be, not as a play, but as a teaching device and discussion starter. 

The show presents us with two girls aged 9 and 10 – Maya (Lara Schmitz) and Alanna (Elizabeth Ferguson-Breaker) – who meet in school and would like to be friends. Suddenly, from the back of the auditorium bursts in the Trickster (Marshall Vielle), who pulls the girls apart and claims that there is no way the two can be friends because Maya is of British, Scottish and Irish heritage whereas Alanna is of Blackfoot and Dene heritage. The girls don’t understand. The question is formulated by them as “To be or not to be your friend”. From this point on the three actors and the two musicians (Curt Young and Sonia Deleo) act out the history of the Blackfoot Confederacy in what is now Alberta from before contact with the White people up through the TRC. 

Given how short the play is, we can’t expect this survey of history to be very deep or complex. The show depicts the Blackfoot before contact living in harmony with nature. It emphasizes the importance of the bison for their culture and how the Blackfoot used every part of the bison for food, shelter and clothing. 

The advent of White people brings the overhunting of the bison so that the numbers decline drastically and the scourge of smallpox that kills 80% of the indigenous population. Given this dire situation the native leaders are anxious to sign any treaty wherein the White “newcomers” will pledge to protect and feed them. The White people, however, did not live up to their oath. Not only did they allow the native population to go homeless and starve but they took the native children away from their parents to grow up in residential schools to aid in their assimilation into White society. The point was ultimately to destroy native culture entirely.

Now that they know all this how can Maya and Alanna possibly be friends? As it happens Maya and Alanna defy the Trickster and decide to be friends anyway and to make “a fresh start”. The main problem with the play is that the reasoning of Maya and Alanna to become friends in spite of everything is given a minuscule amount of time in comparison with the negative past history of “newcomer” and native relations that the girls’ decision has to overcome.

The rationale for the girls to become friends could have been one of “forgive and forget”. But, given the play’s emphasis on being aware of history, forgetting is not presented as an option. And, in their choice to be friends Alanna’s forgiving of Maya for what her ancestors did is never even mentioned. The view of the play is that it is the role of White people to accept the guilt for what their ancestors did. As far as the framing story of the girls is concerned, that never happens either. The play suggests the girls somehow can make “a fresh start” with a full knowledge of what happened before.

Two questions at the Q&A session that following the opening afternoon performance brought out other problems with the show. During the show actors and musicians played caricatures of Queen Victoria, Sir John A. Macdonald and Colonel James MacLeod who negotiated Treaty 7 with the Blackfoot, as villains of the piece. The faces of the three were hung up on the set designed by Scott Reid evocative of the forests and mountains of Alberta. A child among the full house of students from Grades 1 to 7 asked who those people were. This made it clear that it is rather pointless to portray historical personages are caricatures if the children the show is intended for don’t even know who they are. And, indeed, knowing that Victoria is a constitutional monarch, how can she be classed as an active instigator of harm against native people?

A second question asked by a young person was quite pertinent: “Why did the British need to take the land in Alberta when they already had so much land?” To this, one of the performers answered that there were minerals like gold that the newcomers wanted and that their desire could be put down to simple greed. The problem is that that is how the play portrayed the “newcomers”. If the play had been longer and wanted to look at the issue in a more complex way, it could have noted that when White people made first contact with the Blackfoot, the Blackfoot were in the midst of a war with the Shoshone and had almost completely conquered the Shoshone territory and forced their women and children to assimilate into Blackfoot culture. Thus, unlike what the play portrays and, indeed, as anyone knows looking at events around the world, greed is not a vice that is peculiar to White people.

If the play had mentioned this fact, the point that the play could have made was that the treaties of the White people forced what had been a nation of warriors into agriculture which to them was demeaning and was not part of their culture.

The other point that the young person’s question raised was the use of “newcomers” instead of “White people” or “Europeans” throughout the play as the name for those who wrought such harm on the indigenous people. The audience at the opening matinee at Young People’s Theatre was made up of predominantly non-White students who likely are the children or grandchildren of people who are newcomers to Canada. The play does nothing to distinguish the sins of the “newcomers” of the 19th century from their descendants in the 21st. How exactly are the children and grandchildren of recent “newcomers’ to Canada meant to view this play? On the one hand it is simply a lesson about the country’s past history. On the other, it paints “newcomers” as unwanted and dangerous. Are the young viewers meant to think this applies to them and their parents or grandparents who came to Canada for a better life?

Nevertheless, We Are All Treaty People is bound to engender much discussion about the past and present treatment of First Nations people and about whether friendship between descendants of the oppressors and the oppressed can or should be encouraged. Discussions, however, ought to include conversations about the strategies used in the play itself and what was said and what was not.  

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Scene from We Are All Treaty People; scene from We Are All Treaty People. © 2017 Andy Wright.

For tickets, visit www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca.