When the National Arts Centre approached Drew Hayden Taylor a couple of years ago to write a sesquicentennial play about Sir John A. Macdonald from an Indigenous perspective, the First Nations playwright was initially bemused.
“I don’t usually make a living writing about dead, white politicians,” says Taylor, an Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nations in Ontario.
What’s more, his familiarity with Canada’s first prime minister and the chief architect of Confederation was limited. “I had a scattering of knowledge from school 30 years ago and from the odd Heritage Minute. My knowledge was as deep as his image on a 10-dollar bill.”
Taylor was, however, intensely aware of the often-ugly role Macdonald — who was both prime minister and minister of Indian Affairs – played vis-a-vis First Nations peoples. That role included the establishment of the residential school system under Macdonald’s ministry and the increasingly harsh treatment of Aboriginal people in the west. Taylor was also aware of how the repercussions of those actions in early-days Canada continue to devastate so many Indigenous people.
At the same time, the long-serving Macdonald made an effort to enfranchise Aboriginal males, an effort that came to watered-down fruition when the Electoral Franchise Act was passed in 1885.
Intrigued by the NAC’s offer and the challenge of dealing with a subject as complex as Macdonald and First Nations people, Taylor said yes. The result is the comedy Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion, which makes its world premiere in Ottawa next week.
In the play, Bobby Rabbit sets out on what Taylor calls a “sojourn of justice” involving Macdonald’s legacy. It seems that the medicine bundle which once belonged to Bobby’s grandfather was taken from him in a residential school and now sits in a British museum. So Bobby signs on his pals Hugh and Anya to execute an epic heist with potentially dire consequences.
Researching the former PM, Taylor realized that treating Macdonald like a “cackling evil genius” would lead nowhere dramatically. “The really interesting thing about drama are the grey areas. … Very few people wake up saying, ‘I will do evil things today.’ I wanted to see his rationale and – I use the term loosely — the logic behind some of his decisions.”
Macdonald, he continues, was a charismatic, wily and uber-engaged politician. Taylor had to be conscious that the former PM was juggling immigration, railways (the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed under his administration) and countless other issues. “He had higher priorities than the Native issue,” says Taylor, and all this has to play into reconciliation “or you don’t know what you’re reconciling.”
Since the commission, Macdonald has come under public scrutiny, as has the whole issue of whether we should even be celebrating the 150th anniversary of a country that existed – albeit not as a federation — long before white settlers started colonizing it.
Among other controversies is one over whether schools and other public institutions named after Macdonald should be renamed. As a prelude to that battle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this summer announced that the Langevin Block across from Parliament Hill — which houses his office and that of the Privy Council and was named for Hector Louis Langevin, a Father of Confederation but also a proponent of the residential school system — will now be called Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council Office.
The role of Macdonald’s government in Indigenous life also got an airing earlier this year when the Canadian Opera Company retooled and revived Harry Somers’s and Mavor Moore’s Louis Riel. The opera played the NAC and elsewhere.
Renaming public buildings is a “complex issue,” says Taylor. “It’s a mistake to eliminate bad people from history, from public consciousness because you lose what people did and why and how it’s affecting us. But there still needs to be a certain amount of context. It’s like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird — the use of the N word. Do you eliminate it? It serves both a dramatic and cultural purpose in the novels. On the other hand, I’m wary of placing people like this on a pedestal. It’s a complex question, and I don’t know that I can give a simple answer.”
Equally problematic for Taylor is the excusing of reprehensible behaviour by blaming the times. “That means I can do or say anything I want no matter how horrible it is, and in 100 years hopefully people will say, ‘Drew was a man of his times and you have to take it in context.’”
None of this makes the much-talked-about reconciliation of First Nations and other Canadians any easier according to Taylor.
“I’m still struggling with the definition of reconciliation is. It’s almost like a Rorschach test – everyone has their own definition. It’s hazy around the edges. We all want it, to embrace it. My journey is to get rid of the haziness so we have a full understanding.
“It’s a long, long journey, and I’m not even sure there’s a destination, an arrival.”
Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion is in the NAC Azrieli Studio (formerly the Studio) Oct. 3 – 14 (previews Oct. 3 and 4; opening night, Oct. 5). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca