Culture  Decolonizing the Art World

A Review of the Segal Centre’s "Children of God"

When addressing the audience at the Segal Centre after the opening night of Children of God, therapist and social worker Dr. Catherine Richardson said, “it takes courage to be a witness.” Touring since 2017, the musical, directed by Corey Payette, follows an Oji-Cree family whose children were taken to a residential school in the 1950s, and the horrific abuse that occurred at the institution.

The show presents a parallel narrative between Tom as an adult and Tommy as a child (both played by Dillan Chiblow), who is forced at a young age to attend a residential school. Through this medium, viewers have the opportunity to process the events of the play alongside him and his mother Rita (Michelle St. John). Children of God came to the Segal Centre as a partnership with Urban Ink Productions, a Vancouver-based company that, according to the show’s program, “creates, produces, and disseminates original theatre by Indigenous and culturally diverse artists.”

Although Tom acts as the narrator, the story focuses on his sister Julia (Cheyenne Scott), who is sent to the residential school alongside him. In the beginning, Sister Bernadette (Sarah Carlé) and Father Christopher (David Keeley) identify her as a rebel, citing her continued determination to run away. However, when questioned by Sister Bernadette, Julia yells that a man has been visiting and torturing her in the night, but she cannot disclose who it is. As the story progresses, we learn of Julia’s constant psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of Father Christopher, ultimately resulting in her pregnancy and subsequent suicide, both of which are concealed by the school. Through Tommy’s narration, viewers feel a familial connection with Julia, wanting to protect her as if she were their own sister. In the song “Runaway,” Julia begs the Lord to make the pain go away, and let her be free.

Although Julia is a fictional character, her story resembles that of tens of thousands of Indigenous children. The Segal Centre conducted real-life research to reflect this truthfully and respectfully, working with two Elders, Ameli Tekwatonti McGregor and Ka’nahsóhon Kevin Deer, who shared insights about their culture, history, and language throughout production.

Viewers experience the story mainly through Tom’s flashbacks, after encountering his friend from the residential school, Vincent (Jacob MacInnis), at a job interview. There, he finds that Vincent has become an accomplished business executive. They catch up over drinks, and for the first time in years, Vincent urges Tom to talk about the school, and what it did to his sister.

This conversation is eye-opening in a number of ways. Tom has been struggling to find employment, suffering from alcohol use disorder, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. He also has difficulties communicating with others, further exposing the lasting consequences of the residential school on his emotional and social well-being. The audience also learns that Vincent’s brother committed suicide, and that he hopes to prevent Tom from doing the same.

Tom criticizes Vincent, who has begun to present as white-passing, even hanging Indigenous art on his office wall because the white businessmen he works with do so. Vincent’s desires to fit in with his white peers show the very real presence and impacts of forced assimilation from the Canadian government on Indigenous peoples. The conversation with Vincent results in Tom finally revealing to his mother that Julia had committed suicide at the school and had not simply run away, as their parents had been told.

In perhaps one of the most touching scenes of the play, Tom and his mother, Rita, honour Julia’s death in a ceremony. She had been buried in an unmarked grave, like thousands of other children who were forced to attend residential schools. Rita and Tom are at first alone on the stage before it begins filling up with the entire company of the show. The audience is then encouraged to participate by joining hands with those next to them, creating a sense of unity in the room. The ceremony was a way to heal and process the traumatic events in the play. Kaitlyn Yott, who plays Elizabeth, one of the girls at the residential school, said in the talkback after the show that the ceremony scene is one of the ways that she is able to take care of herself and maintain her emotional strength while working on this play. “The end is medicine,” she stated, “it is healing.”

Children of God is a musical, so it is impossible to ignore the contribution that the soundtrack has to the story; each song is emotional, vulnerable, and real. In one stand-out, “Their Spirits Are Broken,” Sister Bernadette sings about the guilt she feels upon realizing how she has affected the lives of the children in her residential school. The song leads the audience to the conclusion that she was still an active perpetrator of colonial violence, despite her new understanding of the violence she inflicted. Another stand-out, the closing number of Act I, titled “This Is What You Get,” balances being an emotional and dynamic song with showing off the diverse voices of the talented company. The music and lyrics, paired with the narrative of the show, create an immersive experience that never falters.

The show’s heavy themes and messages may leave viewers feeling helpless. However, the cast and crew give the audience an opportunity to make sense of the situation after each show, facilitating a post-show conversation that asks audience members what they will do to take action. This conversation is hosted by an Indigenous support worker and includes the cast of the show. The program offers resources from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation that include tips for practicing reconciliation in daily life, such as teaching Indigenous history in schools and reflecting on what biases one carries around. In a powerful portion of the talk, Ry Moran, the director of the Segal Centre, called on Canadians to ask themselves questions like, “am I able to name the traditional territory I stand on?” and “have I read [work by] an Indigenous author?” and if not, to reflect on why that is the case. Many of the messages conveyed in the discussion, as well as other information, can be seen in an installation placed in the venue’s lobby, which is a popular spot during intermission.

The talkback is adamant that art and representation can be important tools of reconciliation. Throughout the conversation, the main cast, who all have Indigenous ancestry (aside from Carlé and Keeley), encouraged students and artists in the audience to make room for Indigenous voices. Chiblow, who plays Tom (and Tommy), stated that we can decolonize the art world by telling Indigenous stories, and by reminding audience members that “these stories are all of our stories.”

Children of God is captivating and powerful. It is an important opportunity for everyone to learn more about the residential school system and what we can do to prevent assimilationist policies. Significantly, it is also a demonstration of the importance of supporting and promoting Indigenous voices and stories in the arts.

Future dates for Children of God around Canada can be found at urbanink.ca/children-of-god/.