On June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day, communities in Canada hold events to celebrate Indigenous cultures and contributions. To mark the occasion, this HillNote provides an overview of the history of Indigenous theatre, highlights the contributions of Indigenous playwrights, and provides information about the development of companies, collectives and organizations that support Indigenous theatre.
Overview of Indigenous Theatre
Indigenous stories are passed down orally between generations and are linked to languages, cultures and the land. First Nations, Métis and Inuit in what is now Canada have long had their own unique forms of performative storytelling through ceremonies, dances and songs.
Indigenous cultures were deeply affected by Government of Canada policies such as residential schools and the outlawing of First Nations cultural ceremonies under the Indian Act. These policies aimed to assimilate Indigenous Peoples and destroy their cultures and languages.
Indigenous Peoples have been the subject of works by non-Indigenous playwrights for many years. Performer and educator Carol Greyeyes, from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, noted that since the 1960s, Indigenous artists and educators “have taken the Eurocentric art form of theatre and the way it has been taught in mainstream institutions, and made it [their] own,” including by borrowing elements and ideas, and adapting various techniques and rejecting others. Indigenous theatre companies and training facilities were also established to support Indigenous theatre.
Generally, Indigenous theatre aims to create a multidisciplinary experience encompassing theatre, dance, song or multimedia. It is rooted in Indigenous cultures and incorporates elements of European theatre practices. Today, First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists are telling their own stories on stage, highlighting the strength and resilience of Indigenous Peoples and communities. Theatre is a way for Indigenous artists to revitalize and transmit their cultures and languages to future generations, challenge historical narratives about Indigenous Peoples and heal from the past.
Contributions of Indigenous Playwrights
Reports have pointed to key moments in Indigenous theatre, including the late 1970s production of October Stranger, a play by Ojibway playwright George Kenny and Plains Cree playwright Denis Lacoix. A 2005 report noted that the moment Indigenous theatre “truly came alive” was the production of Tomson Highway’s play The Rez Sisters in 1982, which toured across Canada and internationally.
Today, there are many examples of plays written by First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists:
- Agokwe, by Waawaate Fobister (Anishinaabe from Grassy Narrows First Nation), explores unrequited love between teenage boys from two First Nations reserves.
- Tumit, by Reneltta Arluk (Inuvialuit, Cree and Dene from the Northwest Territories), uses contemporary and traditional storytelling to explore family relationships and the cycles that pass between generations. Reneltta Arluk also founded Akpik Theatre, the only professional Indigenous theatre company in the Northwest Territories.
- The Third Colour, by Ian Ross (Métis/Ojibway), focuses on the history of Canada from an Indigenous perspective.
- L’enclos de Wabush, by Louis-Karl Picard-Sioui (Wendat), tells the story of Pierre Wabush from the fictional reserve Kitchike, who becomes an outcast after a scandal exposes corruption surrounding the community’s Chief and who is involved in a mythical and initiatory quest.
Companies and Collectives Supporting Indigenous Theatre
Several theatre companies, artist collectives and organizations support Indigenous theatre across Canada:
- Native Earth Performing Arts, founded in 1982, is based in Toronto and is Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company. It has produced works by such artists as Tomson Highway, Drew Hayden Taylor and Margo Kane. Each year, the company’s Weesageechak Begins to Dance festival celebrates new Indigenous works in the performing arts, along with works in development.
- Ondinnok was founded in 1985 by theatre professionals Yves Sioui Durand, Catherine Joncas and John Blondin as the first francophone Indigenous theatre company in Canada. The Montreal-based company’s most recent production is Toqaq Mecimi Puwiht / Delphine rêve toujours, which was produced in partnership with Théâtre de la Vieille 17, a French-speaking theatre company based in Ottawa.
- Debajehmujig is the first and only professional theatre company located on a First Nations reserve in Canada. It was founded in 1984 by Cree artist Shirlee Cheechoo and Ojibwe artist Blake Debassige, among others. Today, the company is located on the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve and creates works based on the Anishnaabag/Chippewa Nation’s world view. The company also supports the development of First Nations artists and operates a multi-arts centre in Manitowaning, Ontario.
- Artcirq is an Inuit performance collective that was founded in Igloolik in the late 1990s following the suicide of two teenagers in the community. The collective provides workshops for Inuit youth. Artcirq has several stage productions, including Unikkaaqtuat, which is a cross-cultural show involving theatre, circus arts, music and video.
- The Aaqsiiq Theatre Company was established as a non-profit organization in Nunavik in 2019. The company has produced three plays and held workshops in schools and youth centres throughout Nunavik.
- Urban Ink Production Society is an Indigenous and multicultural theatre company based in Vancouver and founded in 2001 by Métis artist Marie Clements. The company has produced many works for the stage and is currently working with artists to develop several productions.
- Alberta Aboriginal Arts is an Indigenous performing arts and theatre organization based in Edmonton. It was founded in 2009 by Cree theatre professional Ryan Cunningham and Métis/Cree artist Christine Sokaymoh Frederick. The organization produces events that bring together artists from many disciplines and multiple Indigenous cultures.
Canada also has the first Indigenous theatre department in the world – the National Arts Centre’s (NAC’s) Indigenous Theatre. The first season of the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre took place in 2019–2020, beginning with Mòshkamo: Indigenous Arts Rising, a festival of over 100 events in music, theatre and dance. Highlights included a play by Samanqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier) of Tobique First Nation called Finding Wolastoq Voice, which is about “a young Wolastoqiyik woman who is awakened by the voices of her ancestors.”
Training Future Indigenous Theatre Professionals
There are also Indigenous institutions and organizations dedicated to training Indigenous theatre professionals. In 1974, the Native Theatre School in Toronto created a space for Indigenous theatre and performing artists. While the school initially offered a stand-alone four-week program, it grew to become the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. The centre currently offers a three-year post-secondary theatre training program rooted in Indigenous teachings, knowledge and perspectives.
In some cases, training opportunities are provided through Indigenous theatre companies or artist collectives. For example, from 2002 to 2010, the Ondinnok theatre company founded and directed an intensive Indigenous theatre training program [in French] – a first in Quebec. The Qaggiavuut! Nunavut Performing Arts Society coordinates and manages the Qaggiq School of Performing Arts, which has developed a series of performing arts programs for children and youth in Nunavut, as well as programs for established and emerging performing artists in the Arctic. In 2021, the society, in partnership with the Alianait Arts Festival and Tukisigiarvik, presented an outdoor arts and cultural festival in a 700-square-foot qaggiq (iglu). The festival brought together Inuit performing artists from across Nunavut for performances, residencies (designed for artists to develop or create new work in a studio space) and children’s programming.
Training opportunities are also provided at Canadian universities. For example, the University of Saskatchewan offers the wîcêhtowin Theatre program, which is aimed at emerging First Nations, Métis and Inuit actors, playwrights and designers. The program covers performance, technical theatre design and Indigenous playwriting.
As well, residencies provide space for Indigenous artists to develop theatre productions. For example, in 2022, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity held an Indigenous Playwrights Nest, a two-week residency program that supported the creation of new works.
Through these and other initiatives, Indigenous Peoples are supporting a new generation of Indigenous theatre professionals to tell their stories on stage.
Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires. Looking at Indigenous Performing Arts on the Territory Known as Canada, January 2021.
Smith, Annie. “Indigenous Languages on Stage: A Roundtable Conversation with Five Indigenous Theatre Artists.” Theatre Research in Canada, Vol. 38, No. 2, Fall 2017.
By Brittany Collier, Library of Parliament