For 20 years Patti Flather and Leonard Linklater have brought Indigenous theatre to the territory through their work at Gwaandak Theatre.
On Sept. 19, Commissioner of Yukon Angélique Bernard presented the couple with the first Borealis Prize: the Commissioner of Yukon Award for Literary Contribution for their work in founding the theatre company in 1999 and their contributions to the territory’s literary community.
Along with co-founding the theatre company together, Flather served as artistic director until December 2019, while Linklater served as a board member for most of the theatre company’s history.
In a Sept. 29 interview, both Flather and Linklater said the award came as a surprise — “a total surprise, a nice surprise” as Linklater described — from friends who were checking their phones for word on the award when they were in Haines Junction for some play readings. While there was an email to each of them from the commissioner, they weren’t checking email at that time so heard from their friends when the announcement was made.
“We had no idea we were nominated,” Flather said, noting they later learned it was a number of people they’ve known over the years who nominated them for the award.
As Bernard said in her statement of their efforts over the last 20 years: “I am honoured to be awarding the first ever Borealis Prize: The Commissioner of Yukon Award for Literary Contribution to Patti Flather and Leonard Linklater for their work in founding Gwaandak Theatre and all their consequent contributions to the Yukon literary community. Both authors have brought to light issues around Indigenous experience, mixed cultures, and social justice.”
Flather and Linklater recalled Gwaandak Theatre came about when they wanted to take their play 60 Below — a production that had been supported by Nakai Theatre in Whitehorse — to communities outside the capital city.
While both emphasized the arts community has been very supportive over the years, they also said at that time there wasn’t a lot of theatre touring happening in the territory.
|Gwaandak Theatre project Map of the Land, Map of the Stars, which premiered in 2017 and then toured in the Yukon, BC and Ontario. (Submitted)|
“So we did what a lot of theatre artists do, I think, when you’re having trouble getting your stories told, is founding a company and that’s when we founded Gwaandak Theatre as Gwaandak Theatre Adventures,” Flather said, adding partners came on board as well, including Nakai and the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry.
Had Whitehorse not had a thriving, supportive cultural scene, it’s unlikely she would have started down the path that led to Gwaandak starting, Flather said.
There was also government funding available at the time, for the new millennium, which helped get the organization started.
60 Below seemed to connect with a lot of First Nations and northerners, Flather said.
As described on the Gwaandak website about 60 Below: “It’s nearly winter solstice when Henry, a young Gwich’in man, gets out of jail, ready to straighten out his life. Of course it’s not that easy. His old buddies just want to party, his girlfriend’s moving ahead of him. And then there’s the ghost of Johnnie, everyone’s hero, who just won’t leave the northern lights.”
As Linklater recalled, the play raised a lot of questions and though there weren’t answers, it allowed for those questions to be explored.
“I think that’s the beauty of theatre, is you can put that out there and explore these areas that society, that people don’t really want to talk about or don’t have the ability to talk about,” Linklater said, adding that audiences can take in a play and there’s discussion that follows.
“That’s the beauty of art, is you get to interpret the world and get there and talk about it later and, hopefully, you make a bit of change as you move along. So that was one of the great things about that happening. Gwaandak Theatre was kind of a springboard into that.”
Gwaandak itself means “storyteller” in Gwich’in.
In the years after, productions and tours followed that allowed for a broad range of northerners to be part of theatre that reflected their stories.
“Not that nobody was doing that, but you know, I’d say it wasn’t being done enough and I still think it’s not being done enough in our society,” Flather said.
Productions like Flather’s Paradise; Linklater’s Justice; Map of the Land, Map of the Stars directed by Yvette Nolan and Michelle Olsen; and Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak — Forward Together, Vuntut Gwitchin Stories (presented as radio plays) are but a few of the productions that have taken to the stage or radio under the Gwaandak name.
Asked if there’s any performance in particular that stands out, both Linklater and Flather ran through a list of memories of many, then noted they all stand out in different ways.
|Gwaandak Theatre/Vuntut Gwitchin Government’s public readings at the Old Fire Hall of Ndoo Tr’eedyaa Gogwaandak (Forward Together) – Vuntut Gwitchin Stories, in March 2019. (Submitted)|
Cafe Daughter, written by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, was especially emotional, Flather said, as she recalled Senator and Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck in the audience. The show was inspired by Dyck’s own life as an “Aboriginal-Chinese girl growing up in rural Canada in the 1950s,” according to the Gwaandak Theatre website.
“And we toured that here and across Canada and it really connected with youth and adults and it showed what it was like to grow up as a Chinese Cree child and experience hardships and racism, but it was full of hope as well,” Flather said.
There were also partnerships with the Yukon Association for Community Living as well as the relationships that grew with the communities and First Nations that hosted Gwaandak when it toured cultural centres and schools throughout the territory.
“Working with so many communities, I think it’s always important to be invited in, but there was definitely a lot of ‘would you,’ ‘could we come,’ ‘would you like us to bring this play to your school or your community centre’ and really, it’s a lot of collaboration, not just creating how to tell the stories, but then how to share them,” Flather said.
While there was a wide range of reaction from audiences, Linklater said he believes Gwaandak’s production’s have an impact on everyone who sees that their stories can be told.
Flather and Linklater also noted their hope that audiences saw the possibilities of getting into theatre and exploring their passions, maybe through the Music, Arts and Drama program available to high school students, or possibly by getting involved with a local dance group or amateur theatre.
Asked about that bit of change Linklater had commented can come through theatre and art earlier, he said to some extent he feels there has been change, but “there’s still a lot more work to be done,” highlighting the grants available to artists as an example.
“When you look at the advanced artist grant and stuff like that you’ll see that there’s not a lot of Indigenous artists represented when they’re announced,” he said.
“There may be a few that get grants regularly and I think that’s because they’re known by the few jurors there who make the decisions. And a lot of the jurors are not familiar with Indigenous artists and Indigenous artists are not familiar with the programming, the funding, and the hoops you have to jump through, but those things will come as time goes by.”
Flather also said that while their daughters — members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation as is Linklater — are now grown, there was very little in the school system when they were growing up that reflected Yukon First Nations art and culture, and that is something that seems to be slowly changing.
“I know there are really good people working on that, including getting more Yukon plays and literature and storytelling into the curriculum, but I think there’s more work to be done there so that all Yukon students have the opportunity all through their schooling to be exposed to the richness of Indigenous stories and other stories that are not things like the gold rush narrative or are not just Shakespeare; there are so much more out there,” she said.
“And then, I think, within all of our cultural organizations we’re part of society. We do have racism, we have biases, we have historically favoured white male Euro-centric narratives all over and that is something I think that we are all being called upon to actively question and actively ask how can we do better. Not just who is on the stage, but who is involved in programming what is on the stage, who is directing, who is on the board of an organization and is it actually reflective of our Yukon today and all of the wonderful people who make up our society.”
Looking back, Flather and Linklater said they are proud of the stories they’ve been able to share and the artists they’ve worked with through Gwaandak.
They’re also pleased with the new team at Gwaandak — including Indigenous artistic director Colin Wolf who is in the position full-time. The new team will “continue that work and put their stamp on that vision,” Flather said.
The Borealis Award comes with a certificate, an original piece of art and $500. Linklater said he and Flather are planning to donate the cash amount to a community organization, emphasizing they are grateful to Bernard and many in the arts community for the award and support they’ve had over the years.
Contact Stephanie Waddell at firstname.lastname@example.org