Passing on Canada’s quiet history

P.J. Prudat is passable. So is Yvette Nolan. And so is Lillian Eva (Quan) Dyck. All three of these aboriginal women grew up being able to "pass" as something other than First Nations. "When I say passable, I don't necessarily think of that as a positive thing," said Prudat, the Metis performer in Gwaandak Theatre's new one-woman show, Cafe Daughter. "But it is something that, as an adult, I've become really aware of."

P.J. Prudat is passable.

So is Yvette Nolan.

And so is Lillian Eva (Quan) Dyck.

All three of these aboriginal women grew up being able to “pass” as something other than First Nations.

“When I say passable, I don’t necessarily think of that as a positive thing,” said Prudat, the Metis performer in Gwaandak Theatre’s new one-woman show, Cafe Daughter. “But it is something that, as an adult, I’ve become really aware of.”

For Nolan, who directed the production, being able to “pass” was always posed to her as a relief.

“In my life, I was never made to feel ashamed of my heritage by my parents,” she said. “But the world very often said to me ‘You don’t have to do that, you can pass.’ And I’m like, ‘Do what?’ And they’re like, ‘that Indian thing,’ because I can pass as white. So people were acting as if it was a shameful thing to be a First Nations woman in this country.”

For Dyck, who served as Metis playwright Kenneth T. Williams’ inspiration for the play, her aboriginal ancestry was something she kept secret.

Dyck is now a Canadian senator, neurochemist, professor and associate dean at the University of Saskatchewan. She hid her First Nations ancestry for most of her life.

In the play, it explains that her Cree mother told her to, worried that it would hold her back from succeeding.

Dyck’s father was Chinese. He met her mother only because he was unable to hire white women in his small restaurant because of regulations under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Lillian’s mother lost her Indian status when she married Lillian’s father because of provisions in the Indian Act.

The play, Cafe Daughter, is a fictional, memory play, based on Dyck.

It explores two of Canada’s most appalling historical actions: the treatment of First Nations people, and the treatment of Chinese immigrants.

Williams got to know Dyck, and her story, when he was researching her nomination for the 1999 National Aboriginal Achievement Award. He was working for the awards at the time and spoke with Dyck for hours over the telephone.

“It’s the dream of every storyteller to discover that tale that’s never been heard before,” wrote Williams in his notes on the play. “This was history that was never taught. I knew I had an incredible story to tell.”

And thanks to Williams’ play, Gwaandak Theatre is going above and beyond to make sure Dyck’s story, and what it teaches us about Canadian History, will be taught.

For the first time, the theatre company has produced a teaching guide for schools across the territory. It has been sent out in anticipation for the play’s tour.

The guide addresses residential schools, the Indian Act and the history of Chinese immigrants in Canada.

Residential schools are described in a hypothetical scenario for the students to imagine, where aliens take over the earth and force children into school where they must “dress like aliens, eat alien food and speak alien.”

The guide also notes the courage of Chinese immigrants, who established their lives in small, Canadian communities and includes a photo of Jin Ay Poy’s headstone in the Mayo Cemetery. Often a Chinese immigrant would find themselves the only Chinese person in a community.

The guide also features the Chan family who ran the Hollywood Cafe on the corner of Main Street and First Avenue in Whitehorse until 1961, and then established the McCrae Chinese Restaurant, which is still being run by the third generation of the family: Yvonne Chan.

Finally, the guide tells the story of Old Crow’s Lena Tizya Molony, who was among the first aboriginal people to go to public school in the territory. She was the very first aboriginal high school graduate in the Yukon.

“I really think that this new play from Ken will have resonance with people all over,” said Patti Flather, co-artistic director of Gwaandak Theatre. “The themes that he explores in this play, even though it’s set in the Prairies, it really relates to a lot of what Yukon people have experienced.”

“It’s so many of our stories,” Nolan said. “It’s not just about being First Nation, I think it’s about this nation. That we’re all here together and there’s no way for us to go forward until we resolve those things. Until we understand how we all came to be here.

“That’s where we’re at in Canada. We’re a new nation in the big picture and we’re just working it out – how to go forward in a good way – the First Nations, the settlers, and anyone who’s been here for two years or two decades.”

Cafe Daughter opens tonight, at the Danoja Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City. It is at the Mayo Curling Club tomorrow, at the Link Building in Pelly Crossing on Saturday and it will be at the Guild Hall in Whitehorse from May 11 to 14. The show will then travel to the Watson Lake Community Centre on May 17, the Teslin School on May 18 and the St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction on May 19.

For ticket information and show times, go to www.gwaandaktheatre.com.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com