Indigenizing Canadian art - Manidoons Collective

profile shot of two performers seated on a stage. In the foreground one performer, in a red shirt, has her fisted right hand raised in the air. The other performer, blurred, sits hands on knees.
Manidoons Collective at Rhubarb 2018, photo by Dahlia Katz

Some months ago, a number of angry op/eds implied that Yolanda Bonnell’s request to invite only BIPOC reviewers to review Manidoons Collective’s play, bug, was exclusionary to white reviewers. Four-time Dora nominated show bug is centered around stories about women of an Indigenous family navigating addiction and inter-generational trauma. “[It] is a story about women who have these lived experiences that people don’t engage with,” says Yolanda Bonnell, performer and creator of bug. Bonnell is a Queer 2 Spirit Anishinaabe-Ojibwe & South Asian, European mixed performer, playwright and multidisciplinary creator/educator. 

a performer stands against a dark background gazing to the right, her left arm outstretched. against the background there is a web-like structure
Yolanda Bonnell performing bug. Directed: Cole Alvis. Scenography: Jay Havens. Photo: Dahlia Katz, 2020

Speaking with TAC, Bonnell noted that the Toronto reviewers are predominently white men, and there is a history of approaching culturally specific shows through a racist, sexist, and transphobic lens. In 2016, Bonnell partnered with Michif [M├ętis] artist Cole Alvis to create Manidoons Collective, a circle of artists creating Indigenous performance. Manidoons Collective first came together to support bug. Over the years as the collective grew, it started supporting work created by, and for Indigenous women, two-spirit, trans and nonbinary folks.

Explaining the rationale behind their request to have a BIPOC reviewer, Alvis pointed out that these “notions of excellence” which are applied by reviewers are actually culturally specific. What came to be defined as “Canadian art” for the longest time was rooted in Eurocentric influences. They felt that a BIPOC reviewer will be able to step out of this Eurocentric framework and will be able to bring the kind of sensitivity that bug required. “There is an understanding between BIPOC folks,” says Bonnell. “The feeling of being othered; the feeling of having white gaze on your work. Often, we have a common experience of having to deal with insensitivity and racism.”

In the past year many Canadian newsrooms have been criticized for their lack of diversity. With the success of their play, Bonnell and Alvis also felt they were in a position to make such requests, to be able to use their position to add to BIPOC voices in the media. Several organizations responded positively and hired Indigenous reviewers to review their play.

However, these structures and systems that marginalize Indigenous, Black and other BIPOC, as well as LGBTQ2S+ art forms and ways of being, also continue to exist within arts organizations. “This is a structure that the Canadian government has enforced upon the arts,” explained Alvis, the structure being that arts entities or non-profits can not be trusted unless there is a particular class of folks overseeing the entity – a board of directors composed of lawyers, doctors, etc. 

Bonnell mentioned that several theatre organizations operate within this system. “The system is only built to create revenue for the institution of theatre and have maximum number of audiences.” The system is not designed to care for storytellers or artists. “We see it over and over again with artists that have mental health struggles, especially racialized artists or queer artists or trans artists that are coming into spaces, are not being cared for.” This is the reason why despite their success, Manidoons Collective continues to operate as an ad-hoc collective as opposed to a registered non-profit. 

At Manidoons Collective their goal is to centre Indigenous values, values that are centred around care of individuals and focused on storytelling. “These are not new ways of working,” says Bonnell. “These are traditional ways of being together with community. What we’re doing is really just Indigenizing.”

Part of this indigenizing process was how bug was presented, as an offering of artistic ceremony. Moving away from a typical theatre experience, the presentation was a ceremony that brought together storytellers and witnesses. Last year when the play was being presented to an in-person audience, the show took place in a circle, created by a gathering of the community, the witnesses and the storytellers. Everyone was welcomed at the beginning while there were healers present in the room. People were informed that they could come and go in the space as they pleased, unlike a “conventional” theatre experience. “It was all these things that made it a ceremony,” said Bonnell. 

Cole Alvis stands in a field of tall yellow flowers and a lot of greenery.
Cole Alvis at High Park, photo by Dahlia Katz
“Ceremony can mean many things,” said Alvis. “To me it is an opportunity to the tell the stories of who my family is, when for several generations it has not been safe to speak these stories out loud. Ceremony is telling stories we already know, so that we don’t forget. This ceremony of repeating stories is one of the ways we can assert ourselves on this land.”

“It felt weird to have ceremony critiqued,” said Bonnell circling back to why they made a request  to have their play reviewed by only BIPOC reviewers. “I felt like I needed to protect the lived experience of the Indigenous women who experience this. To have a white person come in and say ‘it didn’t feel grounded to me’. It just didn’t feel good.”