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Residential Schools on the Providence Stage

Photos by Taylor Summach

This February, Providence Theatre takes an unflinching look at the Canadian residential school system with its production of Sisters by Wendy Lill. The play is set in the 1950s and 60s, and tells the story of Mary, a young nun who decides to teach at a residential school so that she can help Aboriginal children. She and her fellow teachers, Sister Agnes and Sister Gabriel, must carefully navigate the political and religious systems governing the schools, without losing themselves in the process.

Sisters depicts a painful part of Canadian history. For over 100 years, it was government policy to remove Aboriginal children from their communities and to enroll them in boarding schools administered by Christian churches. The intent was to assimilate Aboriginal children into the dominant settler culture by cutting them off from the influence of their families, languages, spirituality, and traditions. At least 4,000 children died while attending these schools, and many of the survivors experienced unspeakable abuses.

For cast member Michael Frank, the play hits close to home. “Having lived with survivors of residential schools in my childhood, I find this an important story to tell.” He says that Lill’s decision to tell the story from the perspective of the teachers rather than the children has had a strong impact on him: “I have never thought about sympathizing with the people who ran the schools before. It’s a difficult and eye-opening process, but one that I embrace.”

Marie Raynard, the director of Sisters, agrees. “In Sisters we see people very like ourselves, people with hopes, desires, and good intentions gone wrong. It has been very important for us as a cast and crew to acknowledge that these were people of faith doing what they truly believed was the will of God. The testimony of history demands that we carefully examine ourselves, our assumptions, our actions, and realize that we also may be very earnestly doing the wrong thing.”

Raynard also feels the play is timely. “When we hear about the Inuit food crisis or the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, or when we read articles that highlight the racism in our own city of Winnipeg, we realize that the damage caused by residential schools did not disappear when the schools closed. Sisters might be a historical play, but it’s about today and it’s about tomorrow.”

Given the role that Christian teachers played in the residential school system, it is especially compelling that a Christian educational institution is producing this play. There is a level of honesty that the context itself provides to the story. For Marlene Kornelsen, who plays Sister Gabriel, truth is what makes the play powerful: “This story is raw and real and that is why I want to be a part of it. I want to be part of something that unmasks the truth.”

Sisters runs 7:30 nightly at Providence University College February 19, 20, and 21. Reserve tickets are available for $10 by calling 204-433-7488. Tickets will also be available at the door for $12.

10 College Crescent
Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada, R0A 1G0
Phone: (204) 433-7488 or (800) 668-7768
Fax: (204) 433-7158
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