Francis Pegahmagabow was a decorated war hero. He was a sniper and scout in the Canadian Army on the western front during the First World War, credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing 300 more. And yet when he returned home to the Dominion of Canada he faced the racism and cultural genocide that so many Indigenous people endured in 20th century Canada.
But he did not suffer in silence.
Pegahmagabow instead became an activist on behalf of his people. He was a chief and councillor with the Wasauksing First Nation. The First Nation is on Parry Island near Parry Sound, Ontario. He was also instrumental in helping found some early national Indigenous organizations. His story helped inspire the novel Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. But while his story is known it is not widely known.
That’s one reason for the musical presentation Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow which will be at Chamberfest on July 31. The work in three acts features a libretto by the Kingston-based Ojibwe poet and Queen’s University professor and scholar Armand Ruffo and music by the Vancouver composer Tim Corlis. It was commissioned and produced by the Festival of the Sound under the leadership of James Campbell.
For Ruffo, it was a privilege to work on a project about such a person.
Ruffo has written about important Indigenous personages before. His book on the artist Norval Morrisseau called Man Changing Into Thunderbird was shortlisted for a Governor General’s award.
“I knew a little bit about Francis, most Canadian First Nations people do. He’s one of the most decorated soldiers in Canadian military history.
“I started to do the research and the Festival of the Sound people introduced me to Brian McInnes, who is Francis’ great grandson, and who published a biography of Francis called Sounding Thunder.”
Coincidentally at the same time Ruffo was making these early inquiries a publisher sent him a copy of McInnes’ book.
He says he thought to himself: “This is meant to be. Eventually I met with him and he impressed me with his intimate knowledge of Ojibwe culture and language. The book has the war in it, but it’s not central. Francis’s resistance to colonial forces trying to destroy his culture and language” was more interesting.
The libretto he has written is structured as a theatrical piece with a twist.
“I have written it in verse,” Ruffo said. Makes sense, he is a poet after all. “There are rhyming couplets. I use other poetic strategies, including internal rhymes. The result is this lyrical scenario,” he said featuring four characters including a narrator who tells the story of Francis in three acts. In the Ottawa production and others, the narrator is Brian McInnes.
There are three acts that detail Francis’ life before the war, during the war and his political activism after the war.
“He’s one of the first people who started organizing Indigenous peoples nationally,” Ruffo said. “People don’t realize that. … He gets back from the war and he has no veteran’s benefits.”
In many ways Francis’ life represents the hundreds of Indigenous veterans who have come home to mistreatment and rejection.
In addition to the narrator, there is an Ojibwe actor named Waawaate Fobister playing Francis. The show’s conductor, Larry Beckwith, also plays all the agents of government that confronted Pegahmagabow in his life. And two singers, Jodi Baker Contin, who is from the same First Nation as Francis and Jennifer Kreisberg, who is a member of the Tuscarora nation, also carry the story along. Beckwith was central to the project because the Festival doesn’t do theatre.
One thing that really helped Ruffo, in addition to McInnes’ biography, was an interview that Francis gave to the anthropologist Diamond Jenness where Pegahmagabow talked about his Caribou/Hoof clan membership and what that meant to him.
“He said he was guided (spiritually) through his life and that’s why he could survive the war. He didn’t say it was luck. He knew all along he was going to make it.
“As a young man he had met a shaman who gave him a medicine pouch for protection because, the shaman said, he’d be in danger soon.”
The next year he enlisted and went to war.
The issue of cultural appropriation is never far from the news lately most recently with controversy erupting over two works by Robert LePage called Slav and Kanata.
Ruffo is working with white artists to make this show a success. He said the problems plaguing other art works are not happening with Sounding Thunder. “We have had discussions about who speaks for the culture. It’s important that someone like me is putting the words down.”
Ruffo also believes that Pegahmagabow’s story needs to be told.
“People don’t realize how many Indigenous people signed up to fight for Canada and are in the military to this day. Nor do they know how they were treated when they came back. Francis is the perfect symbol. He is a person who is larger than himself.
“These are the kinds of stories that I think are going to push us forward as a country.”
James Campbell, the artistic director of the Festival of the Sound, would agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly.
He said, in an interview, that the idea for the production had occurred to him “at 6 a.m. one morning when a lot of ideas occur.”
The Festival had been looking for a story that could fit the mandate of grants being made available during Canada 150. And Francis Pegahmagabow was a local person from Parry Island, off shore from Parry Sound where the Festival of the Sound is headquartered.
“To tell the truth our first idea was to do an opera. And then we thought that was way too big.” And so it settled into a chamber piece.
“We wanted to do more and to reflect the reality of the local First Nation on Parry Island.
The fact that he was dealing with the story of a prominent Indigenous leader didn’t give him pause.
“It needs to be told. We are doing our due diligence. To start, we talked to the chief on Parry Island. Part of us getting the grant was a letter the band wrote saying the production would go a long way toward reconciliation. We are involving the family. And Armand is the writer. I don’t think we would have done it unless we had someone who understands the story and the implications of it.”
Involving Brian McInnes in the process helped navigate through some difficult decisions as well, he said.
“There is a lot of politics and there is no way we could ever know all the nuances and he’s been a great help.”
This summer the production will have four performances with the first on Parry Island, at the festival and in Toronto before it comes to Ottawa Chamberfest.
Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow
Where: Ecole Secondaire De La Salle, 500 Old St. Patrick St.
When: July 31 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: chamberfest.com
On Tuesday, ARTSFILE talks with composer Tim Corlis about the two years he has spent on this project.