By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Just in time for the third National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Northumberland Players kicks off its 2023-2024 season with Cottagers and Indians Sept. 15 to Oct. 1 at the Firehall Theatre.
It’s a two-person play inspired by a real-life incident in the Kawartha Lakes region. Dr. Drew Hayden Taylor (an Indigenous playwright from Curve Lake First Nation) has infused this play with a strong sense of humour and satire that nevertheless keeps the focus on such very real issues as food sovereignty, property ownership, assimilation and privilege.
“He has a wonderful sense of humour, but the whole idea of the play and the subject matter is really serious. It’s causing a lot of turmoil in the Kawarthas.” director Val Russell said.
The conflict begins when an Indigenous man named Arthur Copper (Dean Smith) is inspired to repopulate the lakes with wild rice as his ancestors did, much to the disapproval of local cottagers – especially Maureen Poole (Karen Henkel).
It is based on a James Whetung documentary, Russell said, with Taylor renaming the protagonist Arthur Copper.
“What our goal really is, is to help people leave thinking about this – not taking a side, but thinking, ‘How can we make it better, how can we collaborate on a solution, something that works for everybody?’
“Because these were Indigenous lands. The cottagers moved in – yes, they have spent a lot of money and developed their land, but…I think what I really feel about the whole thing is, it’s so worthwhile to do.”
While a September play means tying up a summer, Russell said, she had to agree with producer Jackie Tinson, who discovered this play and wanted to do it in September to coincide with Truth and Reconciliation Day.
Along with that goal, Russell voiced another goal of this play – not only as an acknowledgement of the issues that exist but also to serve as a welcome mat to more of the talented local BIPOC actors to audition for more Northumberland Players productions.
“We really are proud of this, and we would like to be much more inclusive,” Russell said.
Smith, the Mi’kmaw member of the cast, is returning to the theatre after 20 years of being away.
“There’s a lot of things that are going on with it. It’s incredible,” he said of the play.
Smith has a bit of insider knowledge, as it happens. His understanding is that the documentary deals with incidents at Pigeon Lake, and he had some friends who were involved on the Indigenous side of things and shared some of the back history with him. During that controversy, he went with his son to an information meeting and found it absolutely packed.
“I think that’s testimony to how raw and relevant it was, and continues to be,” he said.
The messaging and opportunity for reflection afforded by the play are, for him, “the thin edge of the wedge for people to start understanding how the issues are not properly considered in Canada, and a lot of that is because most Canadians just don’t know the history except for one official kind of history that is handed down – a Colonial version.
“One of the beautiful things with the play is the voice that is sharing not just the Indigenous or First Nation viewpoint, but I think Taylor has done a great job in dealing with the whole delicacy of the issue as well.”
It was his background as an educator and Indigenous education consultant (as well as post-graduate work in urban Indigenous education) that drew Smith to accept the opportunity to play Arthur Copper.
“It invites people to reconsider their role, their positioning, not just in a philosophical sense but quite literally, physically, where they are.
“It’s an opportunity for people to come in with an open heart and an open mind and see it as an invitation for more learning – but as an ally. Allying, to my mind, means you go in learning.”
And part of learning is what you do with it, Smith pointed out.
“You have a choice. There is complacent behaviour, where they are taking advantage, for the most part, of treaties that were not done in good faith and were not honoured. Or they are going to start learning they have a role to play if there’s going to be reconciliation.”
Russell has found that, with his background and dedication, Smith has been an indispensable resource to her in her director duties.
“I am a big believer in timing and omens and whatnot,” Smith said.
“I was reading something just yesterday that said, essentially, expecting people to learn in only one way is the height of entitlement. I have found working with (co-directors) Val and Tim Russell – from the beginning, their practice in working with Karen and I has been completely counter to that sense of entitlement. Honestly, the play couldn’t be genuine in its spirit if it was done any other way.
“For non-Indigenous people, they have taken on the task of producing a play with that kind of flexibility, and it was one of the reasons I agreed to be involved. I certainly didn’t want to be a token – this play is a powerful piece of writing as it is, and I wanted to do it justice but be as deeply reflective as we could.”
In that spirit of doing justice to the play, Smith thanked a former colleague for her vocal-coaching duties as she helped him ensure his pronunciations were correct – Melody Crowe, who worked with him in Indigenous studies at the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.
And Smith gives producer Tinson a lot of credit for the work she put in to ensure that complimentary tickets went out to Hiawatha First Nation, Curve Lake First Nation and Alderville First Nation to use for opening night as they saw fit, and those invitations have been accepted.
Smith is also delighted that opening night will include Alderville First Nation’s Aiden Gorveatt to start things off with a song and some drumming.
They also have a sold-out night Sept. 22, when playwright Dr. Drew Hayden Taylor will attend – and will stay on afterwards to answer audience questions.
And Smith mentioned another group of special guests.
“This play is taught as part of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board Grade 11 English course – contemporary Indigenous authors. We have four high schools coming through the course of the run to listen to it as well.”
“We’re delighted people clearly want to engage with the issues the play tackles,” Tinson said.
“This is real theatre!”
The Firehall Theatre is located at 213 Second St., Cobourg, immediately south of Victoria Hall. For ticket information, visit the Northumberland Players website at https://northumberlandplayers.ca/tickets/