“Storying the 94” project interrogates the history of John A. Macdonald House

The cast members of Streaming Life: Storying the 94 (Photo credit: Dave Kemp)

In 2010, Jill Carter was walking up the stairs of 63 St. George to defend her dissertation at the School of Graduate Studies when her knees buckled beneath her.

The Anishinaabe-Ashkenazi PhD student was not overly anxious; she was well prepared for her talk on the work of Spiderwoman Theater, North America’s longest-running Indigenous theatre company. But the building was a haunted place, a monument to the memory of its former tenant, Sir John A. Macdonald – one of the architects of Canada’s brutal residential school system – and his name was still engraved on the plaque outside the building. The history it conjured up was too painful for the graduate student, who still remembered the emotional toll of completing an undergraduate degree at U of T as an Indigenous student. “It was the weight of everything,” remembers Carter, who is now an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, TYP, and INS. “The weight of history, my family’s life, what that house was.”

Yet many graduate students may not know what that building was, or how Canada’s first Prime Minister helped shape a definitive and destructive piece of colonial legislation – the Indian Act – that continues to constrain Indigenous lives to this day. Macdonald occupied the house from 1876 to 1878, shortly before he was re-elected to Parliament for a second term as Prime Minister. In 1879, he commissioned Nicholas Flood Davin to produce “Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds,” a report on boarding schools for Indigenous peoples in the US that would inform the creation of Canada’s Indian Residential School System.

Now a new performance project titled Storying the 94 is aiming to bring to light this and other colonial histories crisscrossing the University of Toronto campus through a series of site-specific performances. The first performance, which was live streamed on October 13, focused on the structure at 63 St. George, transforming its exterior into a layered canvas of digital images, sound, and live performance.  Ghosts were brought back to life as the performers embodied the victims and survivors of colonial policies. Projected words and images told a story of institutional entanglement with the larger settler-colonial project as history was rewritten – quite literally – on the building’s grey stone façade.

Though each performance is developed collectively, the larger project is the brainchild of Professor Jill Carter, who, in 2019, co-devised and co-produced Encounters at the “Edge of the Woods,” which marked the first instance of Indigenous presence on Hart House Theatre’s stage. For years, Carter has been part of First Story Toronto (formerly the Great Indian Bus Tour), a group of researchers, artists, elders, and community members who share the city’s Indigenous history through walking tours of various neighbourhoods – including the St. George campus. On one such tour, when Karyn Recollet, a U of T Professor and fellow member of the company, remarked that they needed to find a way to “reactivate” the land, Carter was inspired. “That hit me hard,” she recalls. “The St. George campus is just such a fraught place. But despite the many policies instituted by the early governing powers of Canada, and despite the policies, words, and theories that have come out of this institution, our people are coming through, graduating, and taking these tools to help their communities or help ease the journey for Indigenous peoples who wish to enter these institutions.”

For the first site-specific activation, Carter and the members of her Deep Time working group spent months researching episodes from Canadian and U of T history. The more she read and heard, the more she was struck by the duplicity of colonial rhetoric. “On the one hand, he [Macdonald] said we have to recognize that Indigenous people were here first and they have rights. On the other – we have to crush them, put them under our tutelage, force them to our ways.”

The two-facedness of that rhetoric reminded Carter of an old Stó:lō creation story she had heard from celebrated writer, activist, and former U of T instructor Lee Maracle, when the two worked together on a piece for Nuit Blanche in 2011. In that creation story, which begins with a flood, the double-headed serpent awakens when people go to war with each other. One head tries to solve the people’s problems, while the other starts to swallow their conscience. For Carter, that simultaneity of creative and destructive impulses seemed a perfect metaphor for the contradictory logics of colonialism and capitalism. She asked Maracle for permission to reuse part of the story.

“You thought you took our medicine, but it lives in our hair, you fool.”

Maracle, who also provided the voiceover narration for the livestream, was a major influence on the Deep Time working group. (The writer, activist, and former U of T instructor passed away on November 11.) Her process, one that Carter characterizes as a “Call and Response,” came to form the heart of the group’s work, alongside Spiderwoman’s Theater’s method of storyweaving.  (Of this blend, Carter says, “We devised a process through which to devise our work.”) At the centre of that method lay embodied response, both that of the performers, and in turn, the audience. “Responsibility is also response-ability,” Carter continues. “I think that’s what our elders want from us. An immediate response. Put yourself in the story and respond. The story continues. It is not fictive. It is not finished. You do not stand apart from it. It is ongoing.”

The working group spent multiple sessions responding to Maracle’s story, after which the performers went out to visit the land, separately or in small groups, and brought back what Carter calls “provocations” – thoughts, feelings, ideas, or objects that could build the story. These included activities like reading aloud the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to see how the words sat in their bodies, responding to the image of crowds in orange shirts filling Nathan Phillips Square for Canada Day, and considering the eugenics papers that were published at the University.  (In the live performance, each of these observations creates layers of meaning and symbolism around the central creation story.) The play’s digital elements were developed by Deep Time member and CDTPS professor Antje Budde, who sought to create a decolonized vision and project by bringing together the praxis of Indigenous land-based dramaturgy with that of queer-feminist digital dramaturgy.

Each performer also brought their lived experience to the story. For some, like Trina Moyan, talking about the unacknowledged history of 63 St. George came as a form of catharsis. Moyan, a Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) actor, producer, and artist from Frog Lake First Nation in Northern Alberta, is a U of T graduate and the daughter of a residential school survivor. “I felt angry most days, attending lectures by professors who knew nothing about how Canada was established on the blood of Indigenous peoples,” she recalls of her time in the environmental sciences at the university. She says the rehearsals brought her to her knees.  “I fully connected with the reality of John A. MacDonald planning, writing, approving, and signing the Indian Residential Schools policy, a policy that broke my mother’s heart when she was just a little girl.”

The cast members, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are hopeful that Storying the 94, along with the myriad art projects being erected around campus, will prompt a shift in institutional thinking not only about the past, but also the future.

 “We are in a time when icons are being rightfully troubled, so I hope people will think deeply about what commemoration means, what memory means, and how we might remember things differently,” says Gabriele Simmons, a U of T student and performer who has been part of Deep Time for several years. Like Carter, Simmons believes it’s possible to recuperate – and perhaps, reactivate – institutions with histories of harm. “I think it’s possible to have these conversations as these institutions still stand,” she continues, “but they should be held accountable for how they came to be. And we have to re-story what they stand for.”

For Carter, that re-storying can only begin by confronting the truth, however ugly. “I’m not hubristic enough to think that my little attempts can actually enact any kind of full healing,” she admits. “But I wanted to attempt a beginning where we could have some memory of what this place was, what it became – not naturally, but through colonial force – and what it can be again.”

“My hope is to bring these stories out and up to the surface so they can be freed,” she continues. “Then we can make room for other stories – better stories – as we move into the future.”

Lee Maracle passed away on November 11, 2021, during the writing of this article. She was a beloved member of the U of T community, a member of the university’s Elders’ Circle, a former traditional teacher-in-residence at Indigenous Student Services, and a former instructor at U of T’s Centre for Indigenous Studies and Transitional Year Programme. The university mourns her loss.

Watch Storying the 94’s performance at 63 St. George on Youtube. Read more about Lee Maracle’s life and legacy on U of T News.

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