Review: Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout

While the Arts Club explores women’s rights on Granville Island, downtown, the Firehall Arts Centre presents a story of indigenous (native) rights with the Vancouver premiere of Thomson Highway’s Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout.


Set against the backdrop of 1910 Kamloops with “The Big Kahuna”, Canada’s Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, scheduled to make an appearance in the Thompson River Valley, Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout explores the various grievances of the indigenous people that the area Chiefs presented to Laurier during his visit. And there is no lack of grievances here, from restrictions on their territorial fishing and hunting to the lands stolen from them by white settlers. As well, Thomson looks at the issue of discrimination from both her own people and the white settlers as Delilah Rose (Kim Harvey) becomes the first native woman to marry a white man and become pregnant by him.

Told from the perspective of four Shuswap women of varying ages, Highway mixes these women’s ordinary lives as they prepare for the Big Kahuna’s feast and the slow realization that their lives are immeasurably changing around them. For one, these challenges are too much while the others show a steadfast resilience and ability to laugh in the face of their ongoing oppression.

Ernesting Shuswap Gets Her Trout
Tantoo Cardinal as Ernestine Shuswap in Thomson Highway’s Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout (photo courtesy Emily Cooper)

The most powerful moments of the play are those where singularly the women tell a story as if sitting around the kitchen table listening to your elders tell stories from their youth. But where these stories in Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout really shine are the added mystical elements that are pervasive through native folklore; while the stories have some basis in fact, they are embellished and become living, breathing fables. In fact, the opening sequence was so spellbinding that I was filled with such anticipation that the entire show would be told in this manner. Sadly though, this was not the case and a was indeed a big disappointment as the four women, especially Ernestine (Tantoo Cardinal) and Isabel (Tracey Nepinak), were at their best in these solo tales.

Director Lorne Cardinal does manage to reel in what could be a rather preachy quality to the show and makes the most of Thomson’s unique use of language which effectively strays into more modern references than the 1910 setting might otherwise allow. Cardinal provides some small gems with his staging including the decision to leave Kim Harvey “frozen” on center stage while one very long scene unfolds around her indicative of her character’s growing isolation from those around her.

Rebekah Johnson does a great job with the lighting and we assume was responsible for the various projections that punctuate the show. The shimmering river that becomes the backdrop against the white curtain at the back of the stage provided an eerie calmness in contrast to the action on the stage and the pinpoint spots, especially during the women’s solo tales, were fabulous.

The debate amongst our household after the show was whether an audience of aboriginal peoples might have enjoyed the show more than the predominantly white faces that were in the audience the night we attended. Having a sister-in-law that is an aboriginal Princess, this will definitely be a topic of conversation at our next family get together.

I, Mark Robins of Vancouver British Columbia, say Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout, despite its unevenness at times, thinks that for its pure historical content, this is a show that deserves a wider audience. The themes, even after over almost 100 years, still resonant and goes to prove that despite how we might think we have become more “enlightened” in recent years with various treaties and reconciliations, we as a country still has a very long way to go.

Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout continues at the Firehall Arts Centre through May 9th. Visit http://www.firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and showtimes.

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