Residential school horrors explored by applied-theatre actors

Sister Mary (Kari Cowan, left) prays while her younger self (Isabella Goodman) clutches a crucifix during rehearsal for Neighbourhood Players
Sister Mary (Kari Cowan, left) prays while her younger self (Isabella Goodman) clutches a crucifix during rehearsal for Neighbourhood Players' applied-theatre and performance production of Sisters.
— image credit: Peter W. Rusland

Sister Mary looks into the merciful face of The Holy Mother, and prays for forgiveness.

She tries to exorcise the abusive sins she committed against Aboriginal students in one of Canada's ruthless residential schools.

Mary's school was in New Brunswick. Cowichan's nearest was on Penelakut (formerly Kuper) Island.

The shame is the same.

Now the guilt is being explored in an applied-theatre and performance program led by the valley's Neighbourhood Players.

The vehicle is Wendy Lill's penetrating play Sisters.

Kari Cowan, cast by director Mike Moroz as nun Mary, and lsabella Goodman — Mary's younger, blameless self — said they knew little about the harsh schools designed by Ottawa to rob language and culture from Native kids.

"Sisters is about a nun who burns down the residential school at which she was a long-time teacher," says Moroz, whose extra-curricular program includes actors from Victoria's Lambrick Park and Spectrum secondaries. "It's not so much a whodunit, as a whydunit."

The two 16-year-old Cowichan high students said they realize the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is traveling the country to help Natives heal a lost generation's emotional and physical wounds.

They also know Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apologized to First Nations' folks.

"But so many people have no idea how much the schools impacted the Native population," said Cowan, "so it's important this message gets out.

"I didn't think (abuse) was this severe, but the script really opened my eyes — just the inside perspective of how the nuns treated the children."

Maybe the feds had meant well, Cowan said, "but they quickly got out of hand."

Caitlin Doherty, 16, a Lambrick Park student depicting school principal Mother Agnes, agreed.

"It's all from the nuns' viewpoint; their journey after initially intending to do only good, then realizing all the harm they've done."

Canadians know only generally  of the schools' horrors of cultural assimilation, she said.

"I hope viewers who see Sisters recognize it was a terrible time, and there were many different sides," Doherty said, "We should make every effort to make amends," she said, waiving ideas of punishing any of the system's remaining bureaucrats.

"Forgive but not forget."

Like her stagemates, Goodman said she aims to boost her stage smarts through Sisters.

"It starts very nice and well-meaning but gets darker. You have to challenge different emotions to play young Mary because she changes dramatically."

So did the schools' real effects.

"My dad told me about the residential schools; everyone should at least know about the tragedies that happened.

"Despite not being a proud moment in our history, this script is an unvarnished look at the events," said Goodman.

Moroz has been invited to stage Sisters at March's end in Edmonton at a Truth & Reconciliation conference.

It will also be presented this spring at the Victoria schools, and in Cowichan, possibly in Providence Farm Chapel.


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