Ottawa: Ottawa poet laureate, Algonquin elder Albert Dumont, performs his solo play on May 26

Monday, May 16, 2022

When Algonquin elder Albert Dumont, or “South Wind,” was just 10 years old, his schoolteacher asked him what Indians were good for. He told her that the Algonquins made the best birchbark canoes. The following day, the teacher brought in a piece of birchbark and told him to build a canoe, a challenge purposefully designed to humiliate him in front of his classmates. “There was only one person in that class not laughing,” recalls Dumont, “and that was me.”

The incident was hardly an isolated one, but it woke Dumont, now 71 and Ottawa’s English-language poet laureate, to the injustices and systemic racism inherent in the Indian Act of 1876 under which he and two generations before him were forced to live. The act gave the federal government broad powers over First Nations identity, governance, education and cultural practices, in the process traumatizing Indigenous people throughout Canada. And despite amendments over the years, it remains in effect.

The canoe incident, and others like it, form the basis of Bloodline, a (mostly) one-person play that Dumont wrote and stars in, and which will be presented May 26 in Chelsea, Que., as part of the TaDa! Performing Arts Festival.

In it, Dumont plays himself, an Indigenous elder who, following the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation committee, is invited to give a talk to the fictitious Kanata chapter of the Dominion Club of Canada. Using autobiography, poetry and photography, Albert tells the story of how the Indian Act shaped not only his own life, but the lives of his parents and grandparents.

“People in Canada have no sense of how offensive and oppressive the Indian Act was on the original people of this country, and still is. I wrote this because I wanted to appreciate what my grandparents and parents went though in being controlled by the Indian Act.”

His father, for example, resented having to ask for permission from an Indian agent — a white man — whenever he wanted to leave the reserve on which he lived to go work.

“They never thought of rebelling,” says Dumont. “That was the power of the Indian Act. When you’re born under a system like that, you just think that’s the way the world is, and the idea of changing it really doesn’t factor in, I don’t think. My parents were very devout Christian, so they probably accepted the Indian Act as God’s will.”

An acclaimed poet, children’s author and storyteller, this is the first play of Dumont’s to reach the stage’s footlights. About a decade ago, though, he appeared in a production of Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

Co-created with writer and musician Phil Jenkins, Bloodline emerged from a different project that the two were planning ⁠— a play about the life of Constant Pinesi, the last Algonquin chief in Ottawa. But the more Dumont told Jenkins of his own background, the more convinced Jenkins was that Dumont’s story needed to be the focus of a play.

The same teacher who humiliated Dumont with the birchbark canoe also told him that his ancestors, at least those who lived and died before the bible first appeared in North America, were spending eternity in hell. Dumont replied that he wanted to go to hell, then, too, because he wanted to be with his relatives, not hers. Hopefully, Bloodline will get him there without the damnation.

“Our bloodlines go back so far that we have thousands and thousands of relatives who we never acknowledge. And our own bloodline is something we should think about from time to time. Because although those relatives never knew us, if you believe that we have a soul or spirit that’s connected to us and continues to live after we die, then those relatives still have unconditional love and support for us, just as we will for generations a thousand years from now.”

“And I want people to understand that even those who are weighted down with something as spiritually and emotionally harmful as The Indian Act, and the hatred of some citizens — and teachers — we can still be successful and respected. This play has been life-changing for me, and I hope it will be for audiences, too.”

Bloodline is being performed on May 26 at La Fab Sur Mill in Chelsea. Visit www.tadafestival.net for more information.

By Bruce Deachman for ottawacitizen.com.

Photo: Albert Dumont. © 2022 Julie Oliver.