It was the final day of a five-week workshop for Starlight Tours, the musical Cathy Elliott was writing with her life (and sometimes creative) partner Leslie Arden. They had been commissioned by London, Ont.'s Grand Theatre and were workshopping the musical with students from Sheridan College. The show is based on the so-called starlight tours reported in Saskatchewan dating back to the 1970s: Police would drive inebriated Indigenous people beyond Saskatoon's city limits, let them out of the cruiser, and tell them to walk back into town. At least three men are believed to have died as a result.
Ms. Elliott – a Mi'kmaq playwright, composer, actor and visual artist – and Ms. Arden were writing a "musical mystery" about the terrible practice.
The musical – book by Ms. Elliott and music and lyrics by Ms. Arden – carried a message of hope and healing, despite the dark subject matter.
"Our students came into this with fear," says Michael Rubinoff, associate dean, visual and performing arts at Sheridan (and producer of the Broadway hit Come From Away). "They didn't know how to ask the right questions; they were worried about saying the wrong thing. And Cathy – her openness, her compassion, her excitement, her pride in community – really immediately created a safe environment where all of us could ask the difficult questions."
It was an extraordinary experience, by all accounts. In that final week, but especially that last day, the word "love" was used again and again. Before the performances, Ms. Elliott smudged the theatre and the group in the dressing room.
"She put a feather on our chest, looked deep into our eyes and said thank you to one person at a time," says Grand Theatre artistic director Dennis Garnhum, describing the ceremony on that last day, Oct. 15. "And then she finished by saying … 'I am so grateful for you all, I love you all, and you now have a responsibility to tell this story and to be an ally to the aboriginal community, no matter where you go, what you do.'"
Ms. Elliott held that same feather as she stood onstage to introduce the final performance. "This feather was given to me by a very proud father, a Cree father, who gave it to me as a thank-you and a request," she said. "The thank-you was for encouraging his daughter to have the courage to speak her own voice through arts, through theatre, through musical theatre. And his request was that I help make that happen for future generations of Indigenous young people.
"Now I can't do that all by myself. It doesn't take one person, it doesn't take a group of people or a village. It takes a nation. And it takes a nation of people willing and able to take this to heart."
After the show – another emotional performance, another standing ovation – Ms. Elliott and Ms. Arden drove back to their rural home outside Alliston, Ont., along with their border collie, Maggie, and Ms. Arden's mother, who is 91. Dinner was being prepared when Ms. Arden took the dog out for a walk. It was a stormy night, so she decided to load Maggie into the car instead and went to the grocery store. She returned to find the road blocked with police activity. When she entered the house, she asked her mother where Cathy was. "Isn't she with you?" her mother asked. "She was bringing you your raincoat."
As Ms. Elliott walked along the road that evening, she was struck and killed by a car. She was 60.
"It was so like Cathy that her last act was one of love," Ms. Arden says. "Her whole life was about helping other people."
Cathy Elliott was born in Quebec on June 5, 1957, to Roger Cormier, who is Acadian, and Frances Bernard Cormier, who was Irish and Mi'kmaq; Frances's father had run away from residential school as a boy.
As a result of Mr. Cormier's job in finance, the family moved around, with stops including Thunder Bay; Newmarket, Ont.; Majorca, Spain; and Trinidad.
Ms. Elliott grew to become a proud member of the Sipekne'katik Mi'kmaq First Nation, but the family's Indigenous roots were played down during her upbringing.
Ms. Elliott studied graphic arts at Humber College and theatre at what is now Ryerson University. She was a visual artist and designer of sets and costumes, but became best known as a musician, (Dora-nominated) actor, writer and director.
"At the risk of hyperbole, she was the most talented person I've ever known and I've known quite a few talented people. She could do anything. She would get an idea to do something and she'd just tackle it and she'd be excellent at it," Ms. Arden says. "She just floored me."
The two hit it off when they met at a writers' colony in Muskoka, Ont., in 1990; they became best friends. Ms. Elliott was married then, to Peter Elliott. After the marriage ended, she and Ms. Arden became a couple; they moved in together at the end of 1992. They all remained close.
She and Ms. Arden toured with the Children's Trio for more than 10 years; Ms. Arden wrote the shows and Ms. Elliott performed in them and designed them.
Among Ms. Elliott's creations was Fireweeds, her Yukon musical which premiered in 1993; and her 1969-set one-woman musical, Moving Day, in which she starred.
In 2011, she directed The Talking Stick, commissioned by the Charlottetown Festival – the first all-Indigenous musical in the festival's history. The finale was performed for Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge; and a concert version was presented at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering in Halifax.
Ms. Elliott was Mi'kmaq liaison for the New World Theatre Project's 2012 production of The Tempest in Cupids, Newfoundland; she created the music and performed the part of Ariel as a Grandmother Spirit.
Another of her musicals, Lonecloud – about a Mi'kmaq medicine man who performed in Wild West shows – is being developed with Native Earth Performing Arts.
Ten years ago, Marilyn Field, who founded and runs DAREarts – a charitable organization that uses arts education to empower young people facing life challenges – invited Ms. Elliott on a trip to remote Webequie First Nation in Northern Ontario, after a number of suicides there.
"In our first circle, Cathy broke down in tears and asked the kids to help her to learn," Ms. Field says. "And that was the beginning of her embracing and finding her Indigenous self."
Ms. Elliott co-created a documentary about the trip, Fill My Hollow Bones. And she became the first Indigenous artist-educator with DAREarts.
Ms. Field describes Ms. Elliott as having "puppy energy" and endless enthusiasm when working with young people. "They always responded well because they sensed her honesty, her drive, her passion, her caring, her love for them," Ms. Field says. "She was a big kid herself."
She had planned to do a DAREarts workshop last week, though her main focus was on writing and performing works about Indigenous culture.
One such project was Corey Payette's new residential schools musical Children of God. Ms. Elliott played Rita, the mother. Mr. Payette says she was enormously dedicated, brought joy to rehearsals and connected with the team.
"She would tell us that she loved us all the time. She really was the matriarch of the company. She showed us so much affection, every person," he says.
She also delivered a fine, deeply emotional performance. "She was the rock of our company. Anyone who saw the show and heard her beat the drum – it was like she was beating it for her ancestors," he says.
The musical's powerful ending, which involves the entire cast – and the audience – enraptured critics and theatregoers in Vancouver and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
"Her heart is all over that," Mr. Payette says. "When she stands on the stage, she brings us there. She has the ability to tap into our deepest humanity and allow everyone in that moment to have a collective grieving."
Ms. Arden says playing the role "really was the highlight of her life."
After Ms. Elliott's death, the NAC lowered its flags to half-mast for three days.
Ms. Elliott played the piano, the guitar, the fiddle. She loved music – all kinds: Joni Mitchell, Stephen Sondheim, Pink Floyd, country. She loved nature and camping. Sometimes in the summer she would sleep outside in her gazebo. She had an excellent sense of humour; Ms. Arden describes her as the queen of irreverent jokes. She was curious, optimistic, always positive.
Before Starlight Tours, Ms. Elliott and Ms. Arden collaborated on Moll – based on Moll Flanders.
"We were worried when we began. We thought 'oh is this going to work out?' To just be living together, working together, being attached to each other," Ms. Arden says. The result? "We laughed a lot."
During their next collaboration, Starlight Tours, Ms. Elliott left that last day eager to write the new draft and delighted with the performances.
"The students were transcendent. They had taken everything to a whole new level. Cathy and I held on to each other in the hallway backstage with tears because I was very happy that we had accomplished so much," Mr. Rubinoff says. "My last words were 'anything you need, call me.' … It's so heartbreaking because it was all optimism. It was all hope, it was all excitement."
The Grand Theatre intends to develop the show with another writer.
"Leslie has said to me she wants to continue this on in [Cathy's] honour. As sad and hard as it's going to be, we're doing this. It will be extraordinary. It will be triumphant," he says. "And it will be because of Cathy's contribution."
Cathy Elliott leaves her partner, Leslie Arden; father, Roger Cormier; sister, Sandra Turnsek; brother, Roger Cormier; and former husband, Peter Elliott. She was predeceased by her mother, Frances Bernard Cormier. Sheridan College has established a Cathy Elliott Memorial Scholarship. DAREarts has created the Cathy Elliott Fund to Empower Indigenous Youths.
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