Skip to main content

Back in 2017, it seemed as though every arts organization across the country was talking about collaborating with Indigenous artists. It was Canada’s sesquicentennial, after all, and within the larger environment of reconciliation, Indigenous artists were in high demand.

Canadian playwright and librettist Yvette Nolan remembers sifting through the “crazy numbers” of work offers that came her way, just in time for #Canada150. Some of the offers were attractive, others she turned down. “It felt a little bit like putting some beads and buckskin on a project.”

For better or for worse, it was a time when Indigenous artists had the rare problem of too much work, the result of arts organizations’ interest both in celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, and in securing their funding. The push by arts financiers for collaboration with Canada’s Indigenous artists has an affirmative-action feel; it began with the same awkward, tokenistic stage of codifying fairness, and it has the same long-term aim, of normalizing the presence of Indigenous people in the mainstream arts.

Review: Indigenous opera Shanawdithit challenges one-sided perspectives

As cultural sensitivity with Indigenous Canada came into sharper relief, so did some notable controversies. Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden made claims about his Indigenous heritage that were misleading at best, and famed stage director Robert Lepage’s play, Kanata, was cancelled over public objections for its exclusion of Indigenous artists. The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Harry Somers’s 1967 opera Louis Riel, certainly a product of its time, ruffled feathers with its appropriated melodies and voiceless Indigenous choruses.

So, it’s worth noting that there are Canadian companies doing right by the idea of Indigenous collaboration. Tapestry Opera, which has a pretty stellar 40-year record for general thoughtfulness onstage, has teamed up with Newfoundland-based Opera on the Avalon to commission Shanawdithit, the new opera by composer Dean Burry and librettist Yvette Nolan. The piece, and the Tapestry Opera team, have conspicuously attracted the enthusiastic involvement of Indigenous artists.

“For me to say yes to the Shanawdithit project,” says Nolan, herself the daughter of an Algonquin mother and an Irish father, “I had to know in my heart that these guys were absolutely doing it for the right reasons.”

Shanawdithit, premiering in Toronto May 16 and in St. John’s June 21, is named after the young woman of the Beothuk tribe, who lived on the island of Newfoundland until the early 19th century. The Beothuk were among the first tribes to be decimated by the British colonizers, and Shanawdithit was taken to live with the British and work as a servant. When she died in St. John’s in 1829, Shanawdithit was thought to be the last member of the Beothuk.

The opera is about two cultures, both of which are mirrored in its creative team. Burry, who grew up in the same area of Newfoundland as lived the Beothuk, has ancestral ties to the British settlers – some of whom, with good intentions, tried to learn from Shanawdithit and her people.

And Nolan’s Indigenous heritage means that she understands, more profoundly than others, what it is to be disappeared. “Being Indigenous on this land is different from being white,” She puts it simply. “As an Indigenous person, as a residential school descendant, there are things I know in a way that Dean [Burry] doesn’t know.”

And so, in a departure from the norm in an opera rehearsal room, Burry has relinquished the leadership role traditionally held by the composer. “The history of the way these First Nations stories have been appropriated and manipulated means you have to have a much more considered approach, and they aren’t just free for the taking,” Burry says. “I’ve consciously made the effort of sitting on the sidelines and listening.”

Specifically, Burry is listening to people like Nolan, the cast of singers with Métis, Inuk, and Mi’kmaq heritages, and to mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, who is set to sing the role of Shanawdithit. Newman, whose Kwagiulth and Sto:lo roots lie in British Columbia, is one of Canada’s most in-demand singers, particularly for contemporary music and Indigenous projects.

In her own professional history, it’s a rare and welcome sight for a composer like Burry to hand his opera over to Indigenous women, and to follow their lead.

“One of the biggest problems when non-Indigenous people are dealing with Indigenous people,” Burry says, “is that we just don’t listen. And if we listen, we’ll hear.”

Shanawdithit left few clues about her life; no diary entries, no letters. But she drew several sketches – maps of her home, scenes from her life – while under the care of Scottish explorer William Cormack. In an almost artistic depiction of Canadian colonization, Cormack wrote over Shanawdithit’s sketches, adding his own notes for the benefit of the British who would see them.

The sketches have become the centre of Shanawdithit; the opera animates the drawn scenes, and acknowledges the two cultures that leave their marks on the sheets of paper. They’re not much in terms of a legacy, but the sketches do leave Canadian artists with an opportunity to tell this story from more than one side.

Shanawdithit’s story isn’t just about death and erasure, and to try to leave it at that would give us a less compelling tale. Just as Burry feels a certain sympathy toward William Cormack – “I think he tried, and to me, that’s something.” – Nolan, Newman and the other Indigenous artists working on Shanawdithit unpack a subtler, more complete picture of the young Beothuk woman and her people.

“We’ve had so few opportunities to tell our stories in the way we want to tell them,” Nolan says. “It’s not that it’s more right or more accurate; we just stand in a different place.”

Interact with The Globe