On Tuesday, Aug. 2, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts launches its 2022 Human Rights Arts Festival with Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow. The musical journey celebrates the life of the renowned Ojibwe WWI sniper, who was Canada’s most-decorated Indigenous soldier and became a politician and an activist for Indigenous rights.
The production is written by Armand Garnet Ruffo, a Queen’s University professor and multi-genre writer, filmmaker, and playwright, who is recognized as a major contributor to Indigenous literary scholarship in Canada. Now a Kingstonian, Ruffo was born in Chapleau, Ontario and draws upon his Ojibwe heritage for much of his writing. He published his first book of poetry, Opening in the Sky, in 1994. Four other poetry collections have followed including Treaty#, which was a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2019.
In 2018, Ruffo received a call from the Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound, asking if he would be interested in collaborating with composer and musician Tim Corlis to create a musical production about the life of Francis Pegahmagabow. Ruffo had never collaborated on a libretto before, poetry being his primary medium, but the idea intrigued him.
“I knew a little bit about Francis; most Canadian First Nations people do,” Ruffo says. “He’s one of the most decorated soldiers in Canadian military history, but I didn’t know very much more than that.”
Coincidentally, he had recently been given a copy of the book Sounding Thunder by Brian McInnes, an education professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth; McInnes is a member of the Wasauksing First Nation in Ontario and is also the great-grandson of Pegahmagabow. Ruffo gave it a read and, in his words, he “was hooked.”
McInnes provided a new perspective on Pegahmagabow and his experience through a unique synthesis of Ojibwe oral history, historical records, and Pegahmagabow family stories. “Being the professor that I am,” says Ruffo, “I took a look at the bibliography” of McInnes’s book; from there he found more and more information, not just about Pegahmagabow’s wartime heroism but about him as a man, a musician, a firefighter, and later a Chief and activist.
Eventually, Ruffo was introduced to McInnes. Ruffo says that he immediately thought, “This is meant to be… I met with him, and he impressed me with his intimate knowledge of Ojibwe culture and language. The book has the war in it, but it’s not central.” Pegahmagabow’s “resistance to colonial forces trying to destroy his culture and language” was less well known and needed to be told, Ruffo says.
The theatrical piece is written in verse and features four characters, including a narrator who tells the story of Francis Pegahmagabow in three acts. The narrator role is taken by none other than the great-grandson who wrote the book: McInnes himself.
“He’s a professor… He teaches Ojibwe language and culture,” Ruffo explains, “so he was perfect… he has that presence because he’s used to lecturing and could really get into the role of the narrator. But of course, for him, there was also certainly energy because of the family connection.”
The work details Pegahmagabow’s life before the war. One incident that stands out came from something Ruffo found in an interview where Pegahmagabow talked about his Caribou/Hoof clan upbringing: “He said he was guided (spiritually) through his life, and that’s why he could survive the war. He didn’t say it was luck. He knew all along he was going to make it. As a young man, he had met a shaman who gave him a medicine pouch for protection because, the shaman said, he’d be in danger soon.” The next year he enlisted and went to war.
Pegahmagabow survived and returned to Canada a hero, only to be alienated by the very country he had served. “He’s one of the first people who started organizing Indigenous peoples nationally,” Ruffo says. “People don’t realize that… He gets back from the war, and he has no veteran’s benefits… here is one of the most decorated heroes, and he can’t even get a loan to buy a cow.”
Sadly, Pegahmagabow’s experience is representative of all the Indigenous veterans that returned to Canada, says Ruffo. “People don’t realize how many Indigenous people signed up to fight for Canada and are in the military to this day. Nor do they know how [those people] were treated when they came back. Francis is the perfect symbol. He is a person who is larger than himself…”
Sounding Thunder is accessible to people who might not know anything about Pegahmagabow, says Ruffo. “In fact, actually it tells you everything you need to know about him in a very dramatic and inclusive and exciting way. Even people who may not even be interested in Francis, per se, but might have an interest in the First World War: it talks about the numbers and what happened to Canadians in general. It really immerses [the audience] right in that history… These are the kinds of stories that I think are going to push us forward as a country.”
More from the 2022 Human Rights Arts Festival
“The arts are a powerful voice in promoting awareness and action in human rights,” says Tricia Baldwin, Director of the Isabel. “We are privileged to partner with diverse artists and human rights activists who have dedicated their lives to creating a fairer and [more] inclusive future for humanity. Nothing could be more important in this challenging political world climate in which we are now immersed than to inspire people to actively participate and create a political and legal environment that will protect world citizens from prejudice, hatred, and violence.”
On Thursday, Aug. 4, The Isabel brings ECHO: Memories of the World to the stage. This free workshop performance is an international multi-media project exploring the question: How do we speak to the future? The work uses music, narration, images, and film to explore models of knowledge-sharing in four countries: Canada, Norway, Austria, and Mali.
The Isabel hosts the Phase Two residency of this project, during which the artists hone the reworked presentation flow and framework which is now based on the exploration of memory in four sections: the birth of memory, memory stored, memory suppressed, and memory as hope.
More events will occur as part of the Festival in the Fall and Winter.
Tickets for Sounding Thunder, ECHO and the other festival events — Shimon Attie: The Crossing and This is Evidence — can be booked online at The Isabel box office or by phone at (613) 533-2424, Monday to Friday from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m.