Perhaps the bravest scene in François Girard’s 2017 film Hochelaga: Land of Souls depicts the first encounter between the French explorer Jacques Cartier and the Iroquois at Hochelaga, now Montreal, in 1535. Taking a schoolbook moment from Canadian history, so often illustrated as a meeting between overdressed Europeans and more-or-less noble savages, Girard intelligently reconsiders what it actually might have felt like for the Indigenous people and the French. He creates a remarkably emotional scene in which both sides visibly struggle to overcome fear and mutual incomprehension because they believe they have little choice. Speaking entirely in Mohawk, the Iroquois chief is played by Wahiakeron (George) Gilbert, an actor from Kahnawake who also translated the Mohawk dialogue and worked as a consultant for the film.
A pageant of many such historical moments rather than an integrated piece of storytelling, Hochelaga can be a frustrating film for a moviegoer but it is also powerful evidence that a white Quebec director can address Canadian history without offending First Nations. That’s worth remembering as another Quebec director, Robert Lepage, cancels his Canadian history show with grumpy rumblings about freedom of expression. Lepage’s Ex Machina company issued a statement Thursday explaining that several North American co-producers had bailed on the controversial Kanata, which was set to open in Paris in December, and remarking that discussions of the complicated issues surrounding cultural appropriation and freedom of expression would have to wait for a calmer day.
Hard on the heels of the controversy over his show SLAV, cancelled partway through a Montreal run after protesters complained about a largely white cast singing traditional African-American slave songs, the Kanata cancellation once again makes Lepage seem tone-deaf to the issues. Co-created with Ariane Mnouchkine of Paris’s famed Théâtre du Soleil, the show was to consider the relationship between the settler and Indigenous communities through history, including references to murdered and missing women and residential schools. Ironically, writing in these pages about SLAV last month, my colleague Robert Everett-Green asked rhetorically whether anyone would think of making a show about the residential schools without Indigenous involvement. Lepage was already on the case.
Confronted with an open letter in Le Devoir from activists asking why Indigenous actors weren’t included in the show, Lepage and Mnouchkine listened dutifully to complaints through the course of a long meeting last week but didn’t budge. Actors in both Lepage and Mnouchkine projects are often involved early in the creation process, which may be why it would be difficult to change the cast at this stage, but that only highlights how odd it was to select such a topic without thinking about how the communities depicted would be involved.
Insinuations that protests or complaints, in which those who take offence get to express their position, are themselves an attack on freedom of expression seem only calculated to make things worse. Ex Machina’s statement, posted on Facebook, empathizes with the co-producers’ cold feet, “considering what we went through” and speaks of the need to understand, “calmly and together, what cultural appropriation and the right to free artistic expression fundamentally are.”
Coming from artists as privileged as Lepage and Mnouchkine, who enjoy buckets full of free expression, the statement sounds whiny. Lepage’s recent work includes a brilliant autobiographical solo show about his childhood experience of the FLQ crisis (887) and an acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival. When he is not addressing the narrowly personal or the safely classical, however, he clearly needs to stand back and rethink a globe-trotting artistic practice with a magpie reliance on other cultures. He might want to talk to Girard, who apparently found a way to express himself just fine in a project that involved Indigenous participation from the start.