Ian: The Pipeline Project has a lot going for it: it’s well-written and -performed, it deals with issues that directly affect Canadians, and with Kevin Loring’s involvement it also serves as something of a teaser for the upcoming Indigenous Theatre stream at the National Arts Centre. What strikes me the most about this production, however, is how it deals with the tensions between Indigenous Canadians and the descendants of settlers through the environmental debate on pipelines: whether or not you believe that white Canadians should feel guilty for their ancestors’ crimes, it is literally impossible for anyone to live in modern Canadian society without relying on fossil fuels, and so we are all complicit in this system even when we try to keep ourselves environmentally conscious. This balanced point of view doesn’t lead to any easy solutions to pollution and rising carbon levels, but it does put the sociopolitical tensions in perspective against a much graver threat to all of us.
As the main reasons for opposing pipeline construction are a) Indigenous land claims to unceded territory and b) environmental, Pipeline Project follows a sort of Brechtian agit-prop style to explore both reasons as well the intersection between them. The three creator/performers directly relate real facts and situations (such as a re-enactment of Enbridge’s 2010 actions that led to a broken pipe spewing 1 million gallons of bitumen into the Kalamazoo River over 18 hours), in between scenes where they play fictionalized versions of themselves planning the show itself but struggling to overcome the discrepancies between white and Indigenous points of view.
Loring regularly visits his family in interior B.C. from Vancouver in his Grand Cherokee and enjoys re-appropriating the SUV’s “Injun” image despite its poor fuel efficiency record; Quelemia Sparrow takes part in Musqueam ceremonies to purify the waters of Vancouver’s harbour but also has a fast-fashion habit that increases her personal carbon footprint; Sebastien Archibald conscientiously keeps his environmental footprint low but, like many white men, suffers from a critical lack of understanding regarding Indigenous issues as well as a healthy amount of white guilt. Ideally everyone supports Indigenous rights and believes in protecting the environment (because these would never be considered partisan issues, right?) but it’s impossible to do both since we all depend on fossil fuels and, to paraphrase Loring and Sparrow at one point, much of Indigenous culture depends on the direct relationship between each nation and the land where they live.
As pessimistic as this show can be at times, there’s still hope to be found. To be sure, the scene where Archibald raises the topic of residential schools and Sparrow, frustrated, says she’d rather not discuss the subject feels a little on the nose, but it illustrates that righteous anger on behalf of the oppressed, however satisfying, is often inconsiderate of what they actually feel. The awkward conversations and the frank discussion of white privilege are uncomfortable in the same way that it stings to put peroxide on a cut: it hurts at first, but it stops the infection so that the skin can heal. If we can educate ourselves and stay respectful of each other, then maybe we can start working together to protect the land that is home to all of us.
There are a few minor quibbles – it becomes clear that Archibald has the lowest carbon footprint of the performers, but the text doesn’t really explore the connection between the economic status of white Canadians (who are generally wealthier than their Indigenous counterparts) and one’s ability to keep a low carbon footprint. The projections at centre stage and up on both sides are beautifully done, especially when they depict lapping ocean waves or tranquil forest, but when displaying infographics and archival footage there are some cropping issues that keep the audience from seeing the whole thing. Despite these minor issues, The Pipeline Project is both the show we need and the show we deserve in Ottawa in 2018: progress has been made, but let’s not congratulate ourselves yet or self-flagellate for what still has to be done. We have work to do.
Brie: Ian, you pretty much hit the nail on the head with this one and there’s not a whole lot else to say about The Pipeline Project. I do want to highlight Sparrow’s performance and one moment in particular because I think it touches on another area of Canadian discourse that’s super timely. The moment (if you’ve seen it, I’m sure you already know what I’m about to say) comes when Sparrow fillets a fresh salmon directly on stage. I honest to goodness felt a ‘Yas Queen’ escape my mouth before I remembered where I was. Not only does this particular moment illumine the cultural practice to hunt and survive directly off the land (a practice that’s been lost on many city-dwelling folks), but it also shows us that these are important and necessary practices that are still being passed down even today.
The reason I am bringing up this moment specifically is because I think it’s very reflective of North American hypocrisy surrounding animal rights and our internalized prejudices towards Indigenous cultures. In early October of 2017, Indigenous chef Joseph Sawana of Ku-kum Kitchen in Toronto found himself faced with a petition calling for the removal of one of his menu items- seal tartare. It’s no secret that the debate surrounding the seal hunt in Canada has been one of our most divisive issues, however, I can’t help but find it more than a little hypocritical when we see numerous trendy gastropubs that serve foie gras. Food waste in Canada is through the roof, and yet we continually ignore the original caretakers of this land who have developed expert practices in regards to living off the land, never taking more than you need, and using every last ounce of your hunt.
When you watch Sparrow work the fish on stage, there’s no doubt that this individual could do this in their sleep. Even though, to some degree, it’s being used as a theatrical device it still translates as being a very natural and genuine gesture- that is to say, the performer did not learn this technique simply for this one play. Then, perhaps most importantly. the fish is then served to the audience afterwords which brings the entire production full circle by allowing the audience to truly internalize their way of life and a piece of their culture.
If there was one thing that left me a bit confused it is the decision to have the audience sit on stage in the wings. I mean, I understand theoretically why they may have chosen to do this, but I am just not convinced that it’s a very effective choice given people’s general hesitation towards sitting up front or on stage (i.e. “Oh my god, are they going to make me participate?!”). That being said, The Pipeline Project seemed to hit the top everyone’s “Must See” list, and now I can see why.
The Pipeline Project
A Savage Society and ITSAZOO Production
In Association with New World Theatre
Created and Performed by Sebastien Archibald, Kevin Loring, and Quelemia Sparrow
Directed by Chelsea Haberlin