When the opera Louis Riel opens Thursday night, along with the stars on the Southam Hall stage, there will be an Ottawa family.
Keith, Theresa, Marissa and Jordyn Hendricks are Metis and they’re all part of the Land Assembly that stands in silent witness (and participation in) the entire three acts of the opera.
The Land Assembly is composed of indigenous people and the ensemble is an addition to the opera made by the director Peter Hinton. The opera tells the story of the Metis leader who came in conflict with an expansionist Canada led by Sir John A. Macdonald. Riel was defending the rights of his people but his efforts would, in the end, cost him his life.
This “active, physical, silent, indigenous chorus protests the action that is sung in the opera,” Hinton has told ARTSFILE. He said he sees it as a way to reflect some of the realities of Canada today.
“When we watch a barricade today we see the people on their land and we hear all the media and politicians argue about what it means and what should take place.”
This is not the first time the Hendricks have been on a stage at the National Arts Centre, Keith says.
“We were asked to do (Riel) based on our previous experience with doing King Lear five years ago.” Even though the Riel story carries a lot of emotional and historical significance and some of the language is racist, Keith says he had no hesitation at all when the call came.
“I wasn’t really hesitant. I was hesitant years ago thinking ‘Should I become an RCMP officer?’ which I am now. I am happy doing these kinds of things.”
Keith’s partner Theresa was equally enthusiastic.
“We got an email to see if we were interested doing Louis Riel. We were all really excited because of the experience we had had with Peter Hinton as the director of King Lear.”
In Hinton’s 2012 adaptation, King Lear was set in Algonquin territory in pre-contact North America. The Hendricks were part of a formation called the Four Nations Exchange (it represented the four nations: the Metis, First Nations, Inuit and Settlers). As part of the exchange, the Hendricks took part in theatre workshops and eventually were on stage as part of the community for King Lear.
“We did that as a family and for five years we waited for another opportunity,” Theresa said. “We knew right away we wanted to be part of it. We have made some life long friends in the Four Nations Exchange. When we run into people we met here and haven’t seen for five years it is just like seeing an old friend.” Theresa is from Northern Manitoba where people know all about Louis Riel and Keith is from the Red River area near Winnipeg. He’s lived all over the western provinces and, before arriving in Ottawa, the Hendricks spent four years in Nunavut.
In the opera, the members of the Land Assembly are dressed in red robes for two acts and in black robes for the final act. They represent modern indigenous people. And their presence symbolizes that Metis and indigenous people are still here today.
“We are still here. This happened and we are holding everybody accountable,” Theresa said.
The Hendricks are hopeful that the opera will bring some awareness about indigenous peoples, including Metis.
“We have to bring about a reminder that it did happen,” says Theresa.
For 18-year old Marissa there is a need to “do something about it. Saying sorry doesn’t fix anything. You have to do stuff.”
That sentiment is echoed by Keith who believes, that Canadian society “can’t keep pushing (the concerns of indigenous peoples) aside because it is never going to go away.”
The Riel story, as is the case of much of the history of First Nations, Inuit and Metis, hasn’t really been taught in Canada’s education system.
For Jordyn, who is in Grade 10, “a lot of the stuff we learn isn’t really … real. It doesn’t seem truthful. Our textbooks act as if the indigenous people are all gone. … Most people don’t know North America is known as Turtle Island. That’s a basic thing.”
Being Metis can mean being invisible to some people, Marissa says.
“When I was growing up and telling people I was Metis I would have arguments. People would say ‘You’re white.’ I tried to tell them you don’t have to be brown to be Metis.”
One thing that has been strengthened for the Hendricks is their connection to the indigenous community in Ottawa. Being in King Lear helped do that, Theresa says.
The Hendricks and the rest of the Land Assembly have rehearsed for a couple of weeks before getting on the Southam Hall stage for final run-throughs. And now they are ready for two nights in the spotlight.
Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre
Where: Southam Hall
When: June 15 and 17 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca