Masterclass: Yvette Nolan

by Alexia Bürger

Métis author Yvette Nolan is one of the writers of Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show. Captivated by the charm of her personality and writing style, the team behind 3900 (the magazine published by Montreal’s Centre du Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui) invited her to participate in a conversation with CTD’A associate artist Alexia Bürger. Their informal, insightful exchange reflects the spontaneity and authenticity of their communication and the generous nature of both women.

As Michel Garneau remarked on translating the poetry of Leonard Cohen, “Traduire, c’est toujours trahir” (“Translation is always a form of betrayal”). The two words have the same Latin root. And so, to reflect the tone and openness of this bilingual exchange, and after much thought, we opted to present Yvette and Alexia’s remarks in their original language.

Alexia : Yvette, nous ne nous sommes jamais vues, mais nous nous sommes parlées. Une seule fois. C’était au téléphone. Après avoir tourné au moins sept fois chacune notre langue seconde dans notre bouche, nous avons finalement décidé de la laisser dans notre poche. Tu m’as parlé en anglais, je t’ai répondu en français, tu m’as répondu en anglais, je t’ai relancée en français.

Lorsque nous avons raccroché, nous nous étions comprises.

Ô Kanada. Drôle de terre volée que des étrangers se partagent.

Grand ilot, pacifique, mais toujours sur ses gardes.

Toi tu es née en Saskatchewan, d’une mère algonquine et d’un père immigrant irlandais. Ta mère était de Kitigan Zibi, une réserve Anishinaabe dont le territoire est adjacent à celui de la ville de Maniwaki. Tu as d'ailleurs passé plusieurs de tes étés d'enfance sur cette réserve du Québec.

Tu as grandi à cheval entre trois cultures, à la jonction des solitudes qui font notre pays.

À quelle culture te sentais-tu appartenir alors ?

Yvette : It’s funny, I feel that I belong more to the land than to any one culture. I don’t even feel Canadian, really, except in relation to Americans, Germans, Italians, and all the things I know I am not. Mostly I feel like I belong to the land, and the culture that springs from that land, no matter where I am. I live now in Cree country, and I have developed a strong attachment to bison. In the summer, I go camping on the land where they have reintroduced bison, and in the mornings, I wake to hear them snorting and huffing, I feel them moving the ground below me.

In the Yukon, where I have lived and where I return often, I am connected to the rivers and the eagles and the abundance of the land – berries and fish and spruce tea.

My mother spoke three languages – Algonquin, French and English. By the time she died, ten years ago, she was a master in only one: English. So proficient, in fact, that she was teaching English as a second language to immigrants in Toronto. Imagine that, an Indigenous woman teaching English to newcomers to this country.

I think we are making a new culture, right now, right here at the beginning of the 21st century. The old idea of culture – two solitudes battling it out on top of the bones of those who were already here – is holding us back. You and I are talking now. You and I are talking now because Alexis Martin and Jean Marc Dalpé reached out across the ideas of culture and camps, because they were curious about what went before and how that affects us now.

This “grand îlot pacifique toujours sur ses gardes” as you call it, is ripe for a new culture, one that recognizes its own strengths in its land, and in its people who live on that land.

Alexia : Cette force du territoire que je perçois partout dans ta réponse, ça me scie un peu en deux. Je t’avoue aussi que ça me rend presque jalouse. Je sens que pour toi, c’est une évidence, une intelligence, une seconde nature. Je suis une fille de la ville, des poissons j’en ai vus plus souvent dans des frigidaires que dans les rivières (mais j’ai vu un bison une fois, au zoo de Granby, je crois) alors je te lis en me répétant : les baies ? Les aigles ? Le thé d’épinette ? Je ferme les yeux pour tenter de trouver une image, une trace. J’envie ce territoire qui t’habite et qui semble te suivre, peu importe où tu vas.

À cette nouvelle notion de culture dont tu me parles, et cette culture que tu vois poindre à l’aube de notre siècle, qui mettrait le territoire au centre des choses et qui ferait table rase des blessures de l’Histoire, en devenant le liant des Hommes qui l’habitent/l’empruntent, je dis mille fois OUI.

Mais, est-ce vraiment là une culture nouvelle ? Dis-moi. N’est-ce pas simplement la manière ancestrale de voir le monde que vous, Autochtones et Métis, avez gardée (en dépit des siècles derniers) et que nous, Blancs, nous sommes appliqués à ignorer ? Ce qu’il y a de nouveau, n’est-ce pas simplement la prémisse d’un dialogue entre Blancs et Autochtones qui, au Québec en tout cas (et je ne sais pas pour le reste du Canada), n’a jamais vraiment existé ?

Yvette : You are quite right. It is not really une nouvelle culture, but one that is remembered and can be renewed. John Ralston Saul, the Canadian public thinker, posited in A Fair Country that Canada actually is a nation built on Indigenous values, and that we can as people who live here together remember that and move forward together in a good way. Again, I use the terms “Canada” and “Canadians” somewhat guardedly, as I do not really believe that we have achieved solidarity yet that includes or welcomes all the inhabitants of this land into one nation.

Nonetheless, we are here, we are all here together, and since no one is going back to where they came from last year or last century, we had best work to figure out how to live together and share everything. Everything. The land, the resources, the history. This speaks to your point about the dialogue that “n’a jamais vraiment existé”. How can we move forward if we are purposely amnesiac? As to being city folk, yes, yes, most of us are, but our cities still sit on land, we still drink water that comes from lakes and rivers, the coyotes are making forays into the cities, the raccoons are taking over the garbage bins of the metropolis. It is a palimpsest, the land, histories written on histories, and we can see beneath each layer if we are willing to try.

When I was in school, we used to do exchange programs, where city kids would be sent to rural communities or to farms. I think we would be well served if for one year of school – junior high probably – we just sent students to another place – city kids to the north, francophones to English Canada, anglophones to Quebec or New Brunswick. The whole year would be about empathy, creating empathy, walking in each other’s shoes.

We won’t do it of course, because we are afraid of everything and we inculcate that fear in our kids which creates fear and xenophobia. And so that cycle continues.

It is not hopeless, of course. We have writers who open windows into the experiences of Others. We have public thinkers who are articulate about the risks of division and hatred. We have artists who continue to express in words and music and paint and dance the experience of knowing others and trying to know, and sharing that with their cohabitants here on this land.

Alexia : Ce désir d’empathie, cette nécessité « to walk in each other’ shoes », il me semble qu’elle se glisse un peu partout dans ton œuvre, non ? Je pense en particulier à ta pièce BLADE, et à la façon dont vous l’avez présentée au Woman in View Festival. Peux-tu me parler un peu de cette pièce, de l’actrice qui l’a incarnée et de ce que la représentation a provoqué ?

Yvette : Ahhhh, BLADE.

I pretty much set the course with my first play BLADE, which was produced in 1990 at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.

The story of a young woman who was killed by a man who was killing prostitutes, and thereby turned into a prostitute by the media, it was a startling success from opening, and was invited to Women in View Festival in Vancouver.

The central character, Angela, was played by Maria Lamont, a very blonde, very white and very good actress out of Winnipeg (now an opera director in Europe). One of the central themes of the play – which I did not realize until later when the academics wrote about my work – was that the stories of Indigenous people are subsumed by the white narrative. No one cares about the women killed by this man before Angela, because they are “Native” and therefore invisible, disposable, somehow deserving of their violent

and untimely deaths. But because Angela is white, suddenly the police are re-examining the murders. As Angela’s mom says at the end of the play, “maybe if the police had been looking for a man who was killing women, instead of a man who was killing whores, maybe he’d have been stopped a lot sooner”.

The theme surfaces again elsewhere. When Angela’s best friend goes to the newspaper to try and restore her friend’s reputation, it seems a columnist is going to write a redemption story, but then the botched investigation of the murder of Indigenous leader JJ Harper takes precedence, and Angela’s story is in turn subsumed by the new narrative.

The entire story was inspired by the death of a young Indigenous woman in Winnipeg, whom we all knew, who was painted as a prostitute by the media. By placing her story inside the story of BLADE, I thought I could make an audience see how easy it was to be manipulated and misled by the media. I thought I could illuminate the way the media directs the narrative, encourage people to think critically about what they see and read and hear.

Ironic because, it turns out people believe what they want to believe. When we got to Women In View Festival, the program materials and marketing all positioned BLADE as a story about a young Native woman killed by a man who was killing prostitutes. This despite the fact that they had been sent the script, the reviews, our own blurbs. The first audience – a full house – was increasingly agitated through the play, and in the Q&A session after, they were downright hostile. The sense we got was they had come to see a Native woman killed, damn it. That was the narrative they were prepared for, expecting, and they were unwilling or unable to see what we were actually offering.

Someone asked if I did not feel the responsibility to be “the voice of your people”. I responded that women were my people. But I was shocked. I did not feel that I had sold out my people by telling this story in this way.

Funnily enough, when the television series Da Vinci’s Inquest started a few years later, my mother was so excited and outraged, calling me up and saying “BLADE! They’re doing BLADE!” The first episodes were about the deaths of young Indigenous women. It was actually more The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements than BLADE but the point was much the same. The deaths of Indigenous women are or were not clocked by mainstream until a white narrator starts telling that story.

At any rate, BLADE was a lesson for me in how you can or cannot control the response of your audience. Many years later, when I was teaching an Intro Native Theatre course at Brandon University in the Program for the Education of Native Teachers, the students there – all Indigenous – wrote in their responses and synopses of the play, that Angela was a young Native woman. When I asked them why they thought she was Native, they told me it was obvious, that was their story, and she was Native. “You taught us that our responses to a play are as valid as what the playwright intended”, they said. I did. I had. “Well, Angela is Native”. How many of you think Angela is Native? I asked. All hands. All hands raised.

Alexia : Toutes les mains levées. Wow.

Il me semble que tous les enjeux de notre dialogue résident dans cette histoire des différentes lectures de BLADE.

La disparition des femmes autochtones, pendant longtemps, j’ai cru que c’était un phénomène géolocalisé, que ça se passait surtout dans l’Ouest canadien (autour du Highway of Tears). Je pensais, moi aussi, comme les journalistes au regard de ton BLADE, que ça concernait surtout les femmes qui se prostituaient, que cette tragédie appartenait à un milieu/lieu très circonscrit.

Un jour, ma grande amie m’a fait lire Sœurs volées de la journaliste Emmanuelle Walter. Un essai qui traite de la disparition massive des femmes autochtones au Québec et au Canada et qui s’attarde plus spécifiquement à un cas ayant eu lieu sur la réserve de Kitigan Zibi (celle-là même où tu as passé tes étés d’enfance). C’est avec Sœurs volées que j’ai compris l’ampleur du féminicide qui avait lieu chez nous, dans notre cour ou juste à côté, sans que je n’en aie jamais pris véritablement conscience.

Et très franchement, je ne sais pas ce qui fut le plus grand choc entre le constat de cette effroyable réalité et le constat que cette effroyable réalité m’avait complètement échappée pendant autant d’années.

Comment avais-je pu être à ce point aveugle au sort de ces autres qui n’étaient pas si autres que ça, puisque nous partagions un territoire, une grande partie de l’Histoire, et que nous étions du même sexe ?

Pour comprendre que le phénomène n’était pas le fruit des agissements de quelques assassins désaxés mais bien le résultat d’un système global nourri par notre indifférence généralisée, il fallait comprendre les pensionnats. Et pour mieux comprendre les pensionnats, il fallait remonter aux prémices de la colonisation. L’arbre était dans ses feuilles. J’ai lu pour la première fois E. Richard Atleo, Joséphine Bacon, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine ou Helen Knott, à cause de ça.

Emmanuelle Walter est une immigrée (une maudite Française colonisatrice de surcroit !) arrivée au Québec depuis seulement quelques années. Je trouve ça très ironique que ce soit une étrangère qui m’ait brutalement ouvert les yeux sur la réalité présente et sur l’Histoire des autochtones de mon pays. Je trouve ça ironique, troublant et je trouve ça touchant aussi parce que ça contredit l’idée (occulte, mais bien présente) que l’autre (celle ou celui qui vient d’ailleurs, d’une autre Histoire, d’une autre réalité ou d’un autre territoire) devrait rester un spectateur discret, fermer sa gueule, surtout s’abstenir de nous dire ce qu’il perçoit de notre culture et de notre histoire.

« The stories of Indigenous people are subsumed by the white narrative. »

Je cherche la définition du mot « subsumer » en français. Englober. Contenir. Inclure. Mais aussi effacer. Assujettir. Wikipédia me dit que le mot « fruit » subsume le mot « pomme ». Est-ce qu’en faisant cela il efface sa spécificité ?

« The stories of Indigenous people are subsumed by the white narrative. »

Alors comment puis-je faire mienne la réalité de femmes autochtones sans effacer sa spécificité ?

Comment puis-je parler des peuples autochtones, comment puis-je m’approprier cette Histoire avec la même souveraineté que tes élèves lorsqu’ils en lisent une (tu leur as visiblement appris l’essentiel, être libre face à l’histoire peu importe l’intention de celui qui l’a écrite) pour pouvoir agir contre ma vision sélective ? Comment puis-je faire mienne sans voler, dérober (me semble qu’on vous a déjà volé assez d’affaires simonaque, ça suffit le pillage !) ?

Bref, comment parler de toi, sans parler à ta place ?

Yvette : The first time I heard the word “subsume” was from my mother, who was talking about “subsumiary language” – how the English language privileges the masculine, how newspapers will default to the masculine pronoun – “The community is searching for a new doctor. He will be responsible for …” and “If mankind is to survive…” It is actually hard for me to think of examples, because I have spent so many decades training myself to be more precise, to use words that express what I mean, or else to reverse the tendency, and use “she” as the default. But the stories of women have been subsumed by the male narrative, so if half the population can be disappeared, imagine how much more invisible that makes Indigenous women.

That is one of the things that I love about the Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show, that it makes visible characters who have been largely disappeared in the previous telling: women, Metis women, Indigenous women, Indigenous men.

Indigenous worldview is about many things, but one is the idea of the collective over the individual. What that means to me is that no one person – or animal, or water, or tree – is more important than any other. What that asks of us all is to see each other, see how we are connected, how our stories are connected. That’s another thing I love about the Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show; it illuminates the ways we are connected, men and women, francophones, Anglophones and First Nations, easterners and westerners, newcomers, settlers and Indigenous.

We live in a fractious time, a time when people are vehemently insisting on being seen and heard, but also sensitive about the way they are seen and heard. How are we inclusive without completely arresting any forward movement? How do we speak of each other without speaking for each other? I worry that fear of offence will only silence us, and everyone’s story gets disappeared.

I am currently working on Bearing in Toronto, with Signal Theatre. It is a dance-opera about the legacy of the residential school system, and the dancers are all Canadian, which is to say non-Indigenous. They are joined by three Indigenous actors, who play a family splintered by residential school and its effects. The Canadians put on different costumes – a residential school uniform, a priest’s cassock, a police officer’s uniform, lawyers’ clothes and regular citizens’ clothes – and learn things from the experiences that live within the roles. They don’t necessarily like what they learn inside those costumes, and they take them off, but they have been transformed by experiencing someone else’s reality.

We can’t speak for each other, but we still have to keep each other in mind, every step forward. There will be mistakes, there will be missteps, how can there not be, we are human and fallible, but we have to try. Like Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”