The Georgia Straight
Reconciliation in action amid operatic backdrop
THE LAKE / N’-HA-A-ITK
A Telus Original featuring Delphine Derickson, Heather Pawsey, and Jordan Coble. Directed by John Bolton.
FOR SOME, reconciliation with First Nations revolves around learning.
If you just get the history right—and wrap your mind around how land was stolen and why Indigenous children were kidnapped and taken to church-run schools—you’re starting along a path to a more just future.
For others, reconciliation goes much deeper. It’s a matter of the heart.
This road entails forging relationships and understanding and appreciating another nation’s history, language, traditions. This can only be done through curiosity, compassion, empathy, and humility. It means leaving the cocoon of your own culture and venturing into others’ world, knowing that there may be mistakes along the way that can lead to uncomfortable conversations.
This latter route is the foundation of director John Bolton’s remarkable film, The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk. Ostensibly, it’s a film about how Barbara Pentland and Dorothy Livesay’s 1952 opera, The Lake, was staged for the first time—incorporating syilx perspectives—at the Quails’ Gate Winery in 2014.
This 2014 version included input from syilx traditional-knowledge keeper Delphine Derickson and heritage researcher Jordan
Coble in telling the story of two of the earliest 19th-century European settlers to the region, Susan and John Allison.
Susan Allison’s role is performed by soprano Heather Pawsey. She points out early in the film how open-minded her character was in real life. Allison grew up in Sri Lanka, then known as the British colony of Ceylon, and she had a keen interest in different types of spirituality.
Her optimistic husband, John, performed by opera singer Angus Bell, has a more traditional outlook and can’t understand why his wife is so interested in Indigenous traditions. The two other characters in the opera are a Métis man named Johnny MacDougall and
a syilx woman named Marie, who each assist the new settlers to the Okanagan. They are performed by opera singers Kwangmin Brian Lee and Barbara Towell, respectively.
MacDougall’s exchanges with Allison help her appreciate the existence of a serpentine creature in nearby Okanagan Lake, known as Ogopogo to settlers and tourists over the following decades.
But on a much deeper level, The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk is a film that explores cultural appropriation and how, even with the best of intentions, we can make mistakes in pursuing reconciliation.
For instance, in the traditions of the syilx people, the lake actually houses a sacred spirit, not a monster, according to Coble. “It’s more than a creature,” he explains in the film. “It’s in us.”
But this belief was sideswiped in history by the Métis man who cozied up to the settlers in the 19th century.
At one point, Pawsey offers a frank assessment over whether she would even do the opera again in the same way, given that two Indigenous characters were performed by non-Indigenous opera singers.
Composer Leslie Uyeda created an instrumental piece in which Derickson’s daughter Corinne performs a dance to the spirit of the lake. This beautiful moment takes place as her mother and Pawsey’s character look on. Derickson also performs her traditional music with Pawsey, melding the Indigenous with the operatic in front of the gorgeous lake.
Derickson’s wisdom and willingness to engage, along with Pawsey’s open-minded curiosity and compassion, lead them to forge a deep bond. And this is what really makes The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk such a heartfelt and memorable film.
It’s truly what reconciliation should look like—for opera lovers, particularly, but also for anyone else with an interest in digging deeper into Indigenous traditions. g
The DOXA Documentary Film Festival will screen The Lake / n’-ha-a-itk at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday (May 12) at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s The film can also be screened on the website until May 15.