In Bears, pipeline politics meet personal journey
> BY JANET SMITH
Matthew Mackenzie couldn’t have predicted how much the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline would dominate the headlines when he chose it as a subject for his play Bears.
A previous iteration of his script had found its protagonist, an Indigenous oil worker from Alberta, fleeing a workplace accident along the route of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. When that project died, he relocated Bears to the proposed Kinder Morgan route between Edmonton and Burnaby. And then all hell broke loose between B.C. and Alberta and activists exploded into action. The show, which has played Toronto and throughout Wild Rose Country, now opens here, ground zero for the fight, at a time when the conflict is peaking.
“It’s been quite something for that issue to keep going and growing, with things reaching a ridiculous level with the threats to B.C.,” the playwright tells the Straight from the Alberta capital, which has warned of an oil embargo against this province. “It’s that thing artists often strive for; you want to be talking about the here and now. We never expected it to reach this level. And doing Vancouver last—we’re excited to share the piece.”
Still, it’s not as if Mackenzie sought to write a play ripped from today’s headlines. It turns out the genesis for Bears was much more personal than political for the young Canadian playwright and director. The journey started back around 2013, when he was living in Toronto and “feeling kind of spiritually empty”, he explains. He dropped everything and went to live with friends in the mountains of Canmore. While there, he delved deeply into the writings of his grandfather, Vern Wishart, who had meticulously pieced together the family’s longhidden Métis heritage.
“He’d lost his father before he learned he was Métis,” Mackenzie says. “And when he was at the hospital with his mother passing away, there was a woman from her small town in the bed beside her, and he heard her saying, ‘ Those are Wisharts—they’re half- breeds, you know.’ ” That sent Mackenzie’s grandfather and his great- aunt on a journey of research that would uncover Cree, Ojibwa, and Métis ancestral roots.
Adding to that journey, MacKenzie, with the help of producers at Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, spent time listening, firsthand, to the Cree origin story from elders Jerry and Jo-ann Saddleback—two of only a handful who know the full creation tale. That’s reflected in a lot of the animals and plants he’s woven into the work. “I sat down with the elders for a couple hours every day. And it was just incredible to hear about the porcupine, the wild strawberry, and all those things,” he says.
But the nature and wildlife that permeate the play were all around Mackenzie in Canmore, too. “I was very, very in tune with nature there,” he recalls. “In the paper there, often the front-page news is animal news, so everybody knows these really weird facts about cougars and wolves.”
All of that inspiration has fed a play that defies genre—it’s a blend of chase story, identity search, ode to Indigenous spirituality, dark comedy, interdisciplinary spectacle, and ecoactivist plea. Multimedia projections create the settings with an immersive electronic soundscape as former tarsands worker Floyd makes his way to British Columbia via the pipeline trail. And eight dancers join him, acting like a kind of Greek chorus while taking the forms of various animals and supernatural beings.
“That spiritual awakening that Floyd has, and that I had, is really hard to put into words—and so is that relationship with nature,” Mackenzie explains. “For me, dance is magic and that just made sense.”
And as for the heated issue of the Kinder Morgan pipeline? In Bears, Floyd starts to see the effect of his role in the oilpatch on the natural world. But Mackenzie does hope to prompt discussion amid all the issue’s divided sides. And actor Sheldon Elter, who just appeared here in his one-man show Métis Mutt, plays a big role in that.
“The character in the show has worked in the oilpatch his whole life and a lot of his jobs, Sheldon has done,” Mackenzie says. “He’s worked in the patch and his family has. We were very keen not to damn the working man, I guess you’d say.
“That was so oil workers could come and see the show and relate to it and talk about it—just like an activist could.”
Bears plays the Cultch’s Historic Theatre until Saturday (May 12).