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Robert Lepage announces cancellation of Kanata project after co-producers withdraw

A second project by famed Quebec director Robert Lepage has been cancelled following widespread criticism of content judged culturally insensitive.

“Kanata,” a play about the relationship between whites and Aboriginal Peoples, will not be performed in Paris in December as planned after American co-producers withdrew their interest in the project, Lepage and his Ex Machina production company said in a statement Thursday.

The announcement came one week after Lepage held a six-hour meeting with about 30 members of the Indigenous community who had signed an open letter in Le Devoir newspaper denouncing the production for being an example of cultural appropriation.

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They were upset the play contained no Indigenous actors and little input from their community.

The cancellation also follows a decision by Montreal’s jazz festival earlier this month to drop Lepage’s “SLAV” show, which featured a predominantly white cast picking cotton and singing songs composed by black slaves.

In his statement, Lepage noted the “complex and often aggressive controversy surrounding (Kanata).”

“Sooner or later we will need to try to understand — calmly and together — what cultural appropriation and the right to free artistic expression fundamentally are,” he said.

Nakuset, the executive director of the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal, attended last week’s marathon meeting with Lepage and said she was “so happy” about Thursday’s news.

Lepage could have chosen to include more “authentic” Indigenous elements in the show, she said, such as an inviting an elder to do an opening performance.

“He could have said: ‘We’re bringing in a fantastic seamstress who will redo the costumes — that’s a change,” Nakuset said in an interview. “He had a golden opportunity to make changes, instead he was like: ‘Nah, (it’s) my money.“’

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The controversy surrounding the two theatre performances sparked a debate in Quebec society over the rights of white people to tell stories about minority groups.

Lepage and his entourage have said they are the victims of an attack on artistic freedom.

Many Quebec pundits agreed, including politicians such as Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-Francois Lisee, who tweeted Thursday, “this reversal of artistic freedom is intolerable.”

He added that those who withdrew their support had “weak morals” and called on the Quebec premier to intervene.

Activists protested outside the performance of SLAV in late June, accusing Lepage of making money off the pain and history of black people.

Nakuset, who hasn’t seen Kanata, said she hadn’t thought about who was set to benefit financially from the project.

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“I hadn’t thought about the money,” she said. “I was thinking more about how this was going to reflect on Indigenous people and how this is going to shape their viewers watching it.”

Nakuset says North American society has a tendency to use native imagery to portray commercial products such as buildings and sports teams as “strong and brave,” yet no one listens or wants to work with Indigenous Peoples or cares about them when they are homeless.

Kanata claimed to explore Canada’s history “through the lens of the relationship between white and Aboriginal Peoples.”

The co-producers’ interest in the project waned amid the controversy ahead of the planned debut in France in December by the Theatre du Soleil acting troupe.

“Certain (co-producers) have now announced their withdrawal,” Lepage’s statement noted. “Considering what we recently went through, we certainly understand their concerns. But without their financial support, we are unable to finish creating Kanata with Theatre du Soleil.

“Therefore, we are putting an end to the project.”

“SLAV” is scheduled to be presented elsewhere in Quebec next year and Ex Machina says it will meet with those opposed to that show.

Lepage and Ex Machina say they won’t comment further on Kanata’s cancellation.

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