Playwright Keir Cutler pulls from the historical record of the Sir Wilfrid Laurier government to craft an imagined civil servant—William Blank. This solo show, Civilized, is his account of the early days of our country, specifically our treatment of the “Indian problem.”
Blank has been forcefully pulled back to life and into the theatre, where he finds himself defending the residential school system that took indigenous children from their families and sought to indoctrinate them into our model of society. He does seem intensely enthusiastic about the enterprise, though his manic persona hints at some internal conflict. And certain words catch uncomfortably in his throat, as if another truth is stuck there.
With a large portrait of Sir Laurier himself looming impressively over one shoulder and a period map of Canada flanking the other, he emphatically asserts the grand vision of our nation’s founding. The land, he tells us, was so very wasted by the native peoples, who didn’t “own” this country, they simply “roamed” it. A solid government and Christian values would allow them to be part of a glorious future.
And what about those who didn’t want that? Ah, a shame, that. The children, they were entirely vulnerable to cruel punishment and demoralization. Their parents? They could be subdued; we had their children…
This performance relies quite heavily on dramatic irony—our current understanding of the legacy of residential schools and Blank’s turn-of-the-century, bureaucratic attitude. We don’t get a concrete picture of his role in the Department of Indian Affairs, but we understand him as intimately aware yet ineffectual.
The work of Dr. Peter Bryce, the Chief Medical Officer of the department, figures prominently. With his report, he exposed the appalling malnutrition, poor ventilation and unhygienic environments to which the children were subjected. This disrupts Blank’s conviction and the cracks in his well-maintained facade widen in earnest.
As the full scope of atrocities come to light, Blank’s resolve eventually gives out. Both he and the audience discover the true purpose of his resurrection is not to justify the past, but come to terms with it.
John D. Huston, a Métis actor, is a compelling presence, especially as Blank’s conscience overwhelms him. I don’t think the script demands this interpretation, but he and director Paul Hopkins have opted for a deliberately theatrical, pantomime style. This plays well, though I did find myself tuning out whenever the veneer of smarmy ministerial arrogance is prolonged.
Blank alludes to our tendency to topple statues of figures who we’ve deemed cancelled from a modern context. Cutler’s play, though, isn’t interested in performative acts of virtuous outrage. Offering practical tools to aid in our attempt at reconciliation, the show program provides a variety of educational materials and charitable organizations. Slinging mud at the past offers little hope for the future; a clear-headed understanding of that past and actionable support of Indigenous communities now is a more fruitful endeavour.
Well researched and thoroughly vetted, this haunting portrait holds an authentic, unflattering mirror up to us—a disturbing reflection of ourselves trailing back through generations. It doesn’t feel preachy or scolding; Cutler, Hopkins and Huston maintain a thoughtful, empathetic atmosphere of shared remorse over a grotesque truth.