The greatest value of the arts - besides being creative for imagination's sake - is to foster an understanding of the world and ourselves. Artists have the latitude - to borrow Linda Rempel's column name and frequent subject - to create fictional works that are real enough to help us better understand reality while also entertaining us.
More often than not, we are thrilled to learn new things, to see the world differently, because we feel we've been let in on a valuable secret. That's why we run to our friends and take to social media every time we find a new show on Netflix that "omigod, you need to start watching this RIGHT NOW!"
Isitwendam, the current Theatre Northwest production that runs until Feb. 23, literally means "understanding" in Ojibwe and both the show and its actor/creator Meegwun Fairbrother are a revelation.
Let me be plain - you need to see this show RIGHT NOW!
For the non-Indigenous folks out there who think that the modern Canadian definition of reconciliation means permanent shame and endless apologies to First Nations peoples for settlement and residential schools, this play is for you. Isitwendam offers a hopeful path forward through a conversation of listening and understanding.
As a French Canadian whose family has been in Canada since 1651, I have plenty to be guilty about the way my ancestors treated Aboriginals. Isitwendam is a reminder that it's not about me or my feelings. It's about listening, with my mind and my heart, to the stories of my fellow Canadians. I can't erase what was said and what was done but I can try to be better than they were.
That's the cleverness of the Isitwendam plot. Stripped of its racial and cultural politics, it is simply the story of a young man who, once he learns the truth about his father and mother, decides to be inspired by their legacy to help others but also to make wiser choices.
Isn't that what most of us take from our parents and what most parents hope from their children?
So let's take that family narrative and expand it to our national history. There is nothing unpatriotic about recognizing that a genocide was committed against First Nations peoples in this country, with the men celebrated on our currency having key roles in that crime against humanity. We can still admire the political courage of John A. Macdonald and the early prime ministers while also vowing to see and hear Indigenous peoples, rather than dehumanizing them and their culture.
A telling moment happened after Friday night's performance. Fairbrother and co-creator Jack Grinhaus, the former artistic director of Theatre Northwest, made a few comments to the audience and then took questions. One gentlemen asked about the significance of the Hudson Bay blanket as a prop.
Initially, both Grinhaus and Fairbrother were puzzled by the question but the man persisted. It was Grinhaus who realized first that the man was asking, without coming right out and saying so, if the blanket was a reference to the longheld belief that blankets were used to spread smallpox among Indigenous populations.
No, that certainly wasn't the intent, Grinhaus answered. Fairbrother's response went one step further. To paraphrase his remarks, the Hudson Bay blanket should be a symbol of comfort and warmth for all Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. Isitwendam is about reclaiming common history and culture. While it wasn't a conscious artistic intent, the reclamation of the Hudson Bay blanket for its pragmatic purpose and symbolic power, both within the performance and in broader culture, can only be a good thing.
Reconciliation – whether it's a couple whose marriage is on the rocks because of an affair or a country struggling with the pain caused by colonial domination - is about moving forward together, overcoming differences and finding joy and peace in a new and better relationship. Most importantly, reconciliation requires people coming together as equals with the understanding that the ongoing effort to build a better relationship, even with its inevitable setbacks, is more desirable than endless conflict.
We disagree with our spouses, our families and our neighbours. Reconciliation doesn't mean we have to suddenly agree on everything. It simply means we see and hear each other respectfully, celebrate how far we've come together and how much more we can do, not out of guilt or shame, but with pride and joy.
But please don't take my word for it.
Go see Isitwendam right away. It will entertain and inspire you, as the greatest artistic statements do.