Frances Končan’s Women of the Fur Trade is a comedic and playful look at Canadian history, re-examining the narratives of Treaty 1 territory, the fur trade era, and the building of a new nation through a vibrant mix of rom-com and satirical gold.
Frances is an Anishinaabe and Slovene playwright currently living in Vancouver, British Columbia, within the shared, unceded, ancestral territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. They are currently Assistant Professor of Playwriting at the University of British Columbia.
Alyssa Coghill spoke with Frances about Women of the Fur Trade and its inspiration, the creative process, and the importance of sitting around and talking.
What inspired your focus on this period of Indigenous history?
“The fur trade is an important time in the history of Turtle Island and is a part of the school curriculum in Manitoba. It was an era I had learned a lot about as a kid, but never engaged with as an adult, until the creation of the annual Louis Riel Day (the equivalent of Family Day in many other provinces) in 2008.
This political and cultural recognition of the importance of Louis Riel in the creation of Manitoba sparked my curiosity about revisiting the history I had been taught – and in doing so, discovered that I been taught a lot of misinformation about both Riel himself as well as the Fur Trade.
Wanting to re-teach myself the true history, I began obsessively reading anything I could find about that time period and came up against another thing that made me curious: that all the letters and history documentation I was reading came from the perspectives of men. Really, I just wanted to hear what the women were doing, and what they thought. And since I couldn’t find much, I thought I’d write about it myself.”
Did you have any concerns with tackling history through humour? How did you overcome them?
“I think the biggest concern in place when telling stories about real-life events is examining the level of responsibility you have to truth. An initial idea for the play really was just telling a story about Louis Riel and the Fur Trade – and as the play grew, and the tone shifted, it began moving away from history and into a more anachronistic space where there was more freedom in terms of humour. Additionally, because the play centres the voices of the women, who are in positions of subordination and don’t have any power of their own, those characters have access to comedy as a tool and a weapon in a way that the male characters don’t (they get to use real weapons, instead).”
The play’s three lead characters are diverse in their origin, beliefs, and opinions. What impact do you hope this will have on the roles written for Indigenous and non-Indigenous women?
“My interest in playwriting came from this lack of opportunities for Indigenous artists, and this play was no different. And very often, stories about Indigenous people take a serious tone. My hope for the impact of this play is to open up the perspectives on what Indigenous stories are and how they are told, and to offer opportunities for Indigenous artists to set aside the weight of those important but heavy stories, and just get to have a little bit of fun.”
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With the British advance and confederation becoming increasingly inescapable, we meet three women in a fort along the banks of the Reddish River. Unable to go anywhere, they sit together, sharing work, tea, and thoughts about the heartthrob Louis Riel and his assistant, Thomas Scott.
Končan’s irreverent touch pokes fun at the sober precision of colonial recorded history, connecting our shared past, present, and future.
“When I wrote the first draft of this play, a feedback note I got several times was that there’s nothing interesting about women sitting in a room and talking.” says Končan.
“Of course, that draft was written slightly before Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking – which heavily featured women talking (sometimes near Ben Whishaw) – and well before Greta Gerwig’s Barbie created an entire universe of women who talk (often to each other, sometimes near Ryan Gosling).”
“Now, Ben Whishaw and/or Ryan Gosling may never star in a production of Women of the Fur Trade (unless...?), but I like to think this “perfectly historically accurate” depiction of life during the Fur Trade plays a small part in the growing genre of stories where women sit around and talk.”
“Sitting around and talking sounds like a small thing. But historically, it’s been pretty important. That’s where things get shared: good news, bad news, secrets, wishes, dreams, hopes, fears, and most of all, stories.”
Co-produced with the Great Canadian Theatre Company and Native Earth Performing Arts, this sold-out production hits the stage at the National Arts Centre’s Azrieli Studio from January 17-27 before heading to Native Earth Performing Arts’ Aki Studio in April.