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Taking the 'Highway of Tears' to the stage

Hearing Ojibwe spoken, loving aboriginal dance culture and knowing what a friendship centre is - these are some advantages Keith Barker counts as benefits to growing up in a small Northern Ontario town.

Hearing Ojibwe spoken, loving aboriginal dance culture and knowing what a friendship centre is - these are some advantages Keith Barker counts as benefits to growing up in a small Northern Ontario town.

The Metis actor and playwright, whose play The Hours that Remain hits Whitehorse this week, only became aware of that list when he moved to Toronto.

“I was used to living in a community that was about 50 per cent native and 50 per cent non-native. To never see aboriginal people anywhere in Toronto was very weird. But I learned it was a privilege to know those things and to bring them forward.”

Barker established himself in Toronto as an actor. He graduated from the George Brown Theatre School and became the Artistic Associate at Native Earth Performing Arts. He made the leap into writing when he learned about British Columbia’s infamous “Highway of Tears” during a discussion after a show in 2009.

“I was incredibly angry,” he recalls. “I read the paper, I watch the news, I grew up in Northern Ontario - how did I not know about this?”

“Highway of Tears” refers to an 800-kilometre stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert where as many as 43 women have been murdered or disappeared between 1969 and 2011. As Barker learned more, including the fact that more than half of the women were aboriginal, he transformed his shock into the The Hours that Remain.

The play follows Denise (Christine Wesley Genier) in her struggle to understand her sister Michelle’s disappearance. Denise’s husband Daniel (Eli Ham) supports her, but isn’t sure what to do when Denise starts seeing Michelle (Melaina Sheldon) in visions and even vanishes for a few weeks to try and find her.

Barker was leading the Young Voices program (now renamed the Animikiig Program) with Native Earth while he was writing The Hours That Remain.

“By teaching and working with young writers week after week, I learned how to write a play at the same time that I was doing it,” he recalls.

He wrote a first draft that was 63 pages long and heard it read out loud one night.

“I was so embarrassed that I threw it out and started over,” Barker laughs. “I had put a role in for myself, as many actors do. But as soon as I took myself out of the play, it became a story about two sisters and I was able to write (the next draft) ... in about two weeks.”

The play’s tone and scope organically expanded to remembering all missing women in Canada. It’s a difficult topic, one the actors say they are honoured to perform.

Christine Genier is familiar to Yukoners through her popular bluegrass-drenched The Christine Genier Show on CHON FM. Before radio, she studied at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto.

“The last time I did any real amount of acting was in 2001,” she says. “I also did production manager work, electrical, whatever they’d let me do on stage. Then in 2004 I started in radio and that’s where my heart just ended up laying for a while.”

Then in 2012 Patti Flather, the managing artistic director of Gwaandak Theatre, asked Genier to join the Aboriginal Summer Play Reading Series.

“I didn’t think returning to theatre would be in the cards for me anymore because I had a lot of things going on,” Genier says. But she joined the performance reading of Yvette Nolan’s play Annie Mae’s Movement and rediscovered her love of the stage.

The Hours that Remain was another play in that summer reading series. Melaina Sheldon, an actor and costume designer originally from Teslin, took Michelle’s role in that initial reading and continued the role for this tour, with David Storch directing. Flather later asked Genier if she would act in the play when Gwaandak and Toronto’s New Harlem Productions decided to co-produce it. Genier knew her answer immediately.

“It’s never supposed to be about accolades, but the difference between this and any other play I’ve worked on is this is about telling a story that desperately needs to be told,” she says. “As long as we’ve done that and we’ve done that in a good way and a respectful way, I think we’ve done a good job.”

The Hours that Remain was initially co-produced in 2012 by the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company and New Harlem Productions. It opened in Saskatoon, then toured to Toronto, with different actors in the sisters’ roles. For the 2014 tour, Gwaandak and New Harlem started at the Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver and joined the Tr’ondek Hwech’in’s Myth and Medium festivities last weekend in Dawson City.

Eli Ham has acted the role of Daniel, the husband, in each city. An experienced stage, film and television actor, Ham notices that when he works with First Nations theatre companies, “there’s an honour to the storytelling that doesn’t exist in some of the other cultures I identify with.”

Does working with The Hours that Remain leave Ham overwhelmed by the dark side of humanity? After all, the Native Women’s Association of Canada has compiled information about 582 missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, 20 per cent of whom are still missing as of late 2013.

In January this year, an Ottawa researcher Maryanne Pearce published online a free, fully searchable database of missing and murdered women that she built over seven years for her PhD thesis at the University of Ottawa’s law school. The “new” number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada: 824.

Ham notes that the play ends with optimism, and the audience is not abandoned.

As for his role, “I’m not what you call a method actor. I’ve seen too many people who are even my age who have pillaged their personal experiences so deeply that it drains them; you have to find technical ways to commit fully to a moment,” he explains.

Then Ham relates that his mother founded Optimism Place, a women’s shelter in Stratford, when he was in junior high school. He learned early on that men are part of healing the effects of violence on the extended community.

“I do find [acting in the play] costly,” he adds. “I’m always tired at the end, even though it’s only an hour. Then we have the wonderful experience of the talkback and that very quickly reinvigorates me.”

When stories of large-scale tragedies get crunched into statistics, they can be strangely under-reported and overly-familiar at the same time. A creative work can temporarily bring the question of a national problem into a smaller scale that lets the individuality of missing and affected people shine through.

The Hours that Remain is at the Yukon Arts Centre Wednesday, March 5 to Saturday, March 8, each show at 8 p.m.

Meg Walker is a Yukon visual artist and writer.