Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout
by Tomson Highway

Dates and Venue 17 April – 9 May 2009 @ 8pm (26 Apr, 3 May & 10 May @ 2pm) | Firehall Arts Centre

Director Lorne Cardinal Sound Design Russell Wallace

Reviewer John Jane

Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the early nineteenth century, Kamloops was exclusively inhabited by the Shuswap nation. Tomson Highway’s play Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout is set in the Kamloops region nearly a hundred years ago and centres around four Native women as they hastily prepare a banquet in honour of a visit to their community by the then Prime Minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier. The characters, played by a talented quartet of aboriginal actors are fictional, but the event is historic fact.

The document presented to him that addressed the loss of fishing, hunting and grazing rights became known as “The Laurier Memorial.” Laurier, or as he is oft referred to throughout the play "the big kahoona of Canada" – a description that wears less humourous as the play progresses – was largely sympathetic to their cause, but unfortunately for the Shuswap people, he lost the election the following years to Robert Laird Borden.

Director Lorne Cardinal, best known for his role of Sgt. Davis Quinton on the television comedy “Corner Gas” deserves much of the credit for bringing Highway’s play to Vancouver. Despite problems with the show’s slow pacing, Cardinal, in respecting the playwright’s basic premise and wisely opting for an aboriginal cast has forged a “must-see” production.

The language in Ernestine Shuswap is English, but the idiom and rhythm of the dialogue is “very” Shuswap. It’s this feature that actually gives much of the play its honest humour.

Veteran First Nations actor, Tantoo Cardinal (no relation to Lorne) has the title role and turns in a marvellous linchpin performance. Promising newcomer Kim Harvey, seen recently as a rebellious teenager in the Presentation House production, Where the River meets the Sea has a way of drawing the audience’s attention to whatever she is doing regardless of who is sharing the stage. She gives an impassioned performance of pregnant and confused Delilah Rose Johnson.

Tracey Nepinak supplies many of the lighter moments in what is essentially a tragic story as the good-natured saskatoon berry pie maker Isobel Thompson. Quelemia Sparrow as a feisty young widow Annabelle Okanagan, makes up the foursome.

The play works best when it delivers on the irony that is promised by its title – Ernestine Shuswap DOES get her trout and in defiance of the “Whiteman’s laws” – and is less successful when dispensing its absurdist elements.

© 2009 John Jane