Mòshkamo: Marie Clements’ powerful script opens NAC Indigenous arts festival

Greg Girard photographed the 200 Block of East Hastings and the Ovaltine Café in 1975. The graphic treatment was done by Aura, an Oneida artist from Toronto.

Was The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Métis-Dene playwright Marie Clements born too soon? It seems that way.

Clements’ surrealist play based on the murders of multiple Indigenous women by Gilbert Paul Jordan on Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside over a two-decade period debuted at that city’s Firehall Arts Centre in 2000.  It was produced again, this time by Native Earth Performing Arts at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, in 2004. And that’s it as far as professional mountings go, according to Clements.

Now the show, which was adapted as a 2006 Canadian film called Unnatural & Accidental, is opening the premiere season of NAC Indigenous Theatre. The show is a co-production with NAC English Theatre and is the season opener there as well.

“The cosmology has changed,” says Clements when asked about the puzzling dearth of productions. “Almost 20 years ago, it was harder to put up a huge production of nearly all-Indigenous performers around a controversial subject. I think people were a little frightened of it at the time and maybe they still are.”

Marie Clements

Public attention to the fate of so many Indigenous women — via high-profile efforts like the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls — along with multiple First Nations productions at the NAC and elsewhere have, it appears, finally paved the way for more attention to a show like Clements’.

Ironically, it was public inattention that prompted her to write the play.

Jordan, known as the “Boozing Barber,” was brought to trial in 1988 after taking women from the Downtown Eastside to hotel rooms and killing them by forcing alcohol down their throats. It’s believed he began killing in 1965 and continued until the mid-1980s.

Clements was driven to write the play after seeing a multi-page newspaper spread about Jordan that included just a quarter-page or so about his victims. That imbalance prompted her to start researching the women and that led to the play, which brings the spirits of 10 murdered women together in support of Rebecca, the daughter of one of the victims who is searching for answers about her mother’s disappearance. 

“I really wanted people to understand that these women were part of a community, they were mothers and sisters,” says Clements, who emphasizes time and again the strength of these women. “The structure of the play was built on reading about their last whereabouts.”

Because the women were victims of a serial killer, she continues, we tend to think the deaths were their own fault, that they were weak. Clements, however, sees them as survivors who, like other vulnerable people, became victims because of racism or classism.

She views that susceptibility of some strong people to bad outcomes as especially true of Indigenous women, who are vulnerable not only to predators like Jordan but to judicial systems, policing and social structures. Because all these factors layer upon each other, it’s hard to say which comes first. 

Jordan — who was convicted of just one manslaughter charge, served six years in prison and died in 2006 — is a character in the play.

“Part of the challenge for me was understanding that some of these women were quite strong women, and how could this man infiltrate himself into the situation and turn it around … it just seemed so devious,” she says. “Who did this man become to make them feel that they are safe for the moment, that he’s not the monster that he is?”

Separation from community and heritage number among the things that can make people vulnerable. Residential schools, foster care systems, the Sixties Scoop: They all visited terrible results on those who endured them.

At the same time, says Clements, “What we’ve been witness to are some amazing and inspiring stories of survival with grace (along with) stories that are painful.”

She hasn’t seen her show in years, but “I can’t wait to see so many of our strong, talented women on stage. I hope it gives more than it takes to view it … It’s a part of recognizing that our women are strong, that they are survivors, and they are beautiful and complex in all things.”

The Unnatural and Accidental Women is in the Babs Asper Theatre, Sept. 11-21 (previews, Sept. 11 & 12; opening night, Sept 13). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.

The Unnatural and Accidental Women begins the Mòshkamo Indigenous Arts Festival, an all-Indigenous celebration throughout the NAC’s performance and public spaces on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabeg territory, Sept. 11-29.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.