Every year, the Perth through the Ages historic theatrical walking play uncovers stories and characters from Perth’s past. Often, a historic event or character will be supplemented by fictional creations who are true to the era and which aid in the development of the story. For playwright Laurel Smith, who writes both the morning walking plays and the evening Lonely Ghosts Walks, “I always find playwriting/storytelling to be a spiritual, mystical process, as well as a serious responsibility.” For the past two summers, her works have focused on historic wrongs committed against Indigenous people in and around Perth, one of many communities that was settled in what is still unceded Algonquin territory. Numerous histories of Eastern Ontario still rely on the inaccurate notion that this area was uninhabited until European colonizers arrived, ignoring the fact that the Algonquin people have lived in the area since time immemorial, and still do. Much of Algonquin history is either buried or paved over and renamed. In 2016, Smith’s play River of Memory reminded audiences that when Europeans first arrived in the area, they could not have survived were it not for the generosity and knowledge of the Algonquin people who were already here. The story focused on a young man discovering his Indigenous heritage following the death of his mother. A Serendipitous Connection Last summer, A Nation Lost and Found told a story of conflict at the time of Confederation, when a Scottish woman, Bridget O’Leary, experienced community disparagement after hiring an Indigenous man known as John Stevens to work on her farm. O’Leary was also criticized by her fiancé for helping care for Stevens’ baby, Marie. Over the winter, Smith was contacted by someone researching their family history. While Smith had consulted with representatives of numerous Algonquin nations to ensure the play’s historical accuracy, the Stevens name never came up in her research, and was instead, she thought, a fictional creation chosen to help represent Indigenous-settler relations at the time. But according to an email she received, the Stevens were in fact real people, and Smith’s choice of first names and approximate dates of both was uncannily in sync with family records. Indeed, Peter Stevens was the adopted name of Algonquin Chief Shawanipinessi, who along with his community at Bob’s Lake experienced an all too familiar tale of land dispossession and dishonourable treatment on the part of the Crown. “Peter Stevens’ son was John Stevens who was born in 1831,” read the email. “Marie Stevens was born between 1863 and 1867, which was a perfect match for the baby in your play!” The backdrop to A Nation Lost and Found was based on the less than savoury historical record, one of constant attempts by local Indigenous people to petition colonial authorities to end acts of violence and theft against the region’s first inhabitants. Unsavoury History According to archival records, “The Government of Sir Charles Bagot granted a license of occupation to Shwanapenesi and his band of 90 or so souls in 1844. They lived… Continue reading
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