The late Nisga’a MLA Larry Guno’s story of life at Edmonton Residential School in St. Albert, Alta. is taking centre stage.
Bunk #7 follows Guno’s experiences as a student at the residential school during 1959 and 1960.
His recollections weave remarkably positive memories of friends, a family away from home and music of the era that kept the boys’ company, with the strained and darker events they endured at the residential school, which all come to a boiling point over the course of the play.
Its revival is years in the making after Native Earth Performing Arts’ original production of the play halted in 2005. Guno died suddenly at the age of 65 in Terrace as the script was going through its final revisions.
Though Guno had been working on Bunk #7 for more than four years, the play was not yet ready to be produced, Terrace Little Theatre director Marianne Brorup Weston says. People were shaken with news of his untimely death.
“Larry was this really charismatic person…he was a brilliant man. He was cultured, he was a nice person, he was inclusive in his world view,” she says. “Everyone was grieving — we were all very upset.”
Guno was born in 1940 and grew up in the Nisga’a village of New Aiyansh (now Gitlaaxt’aamiks). He spent four years at the Edmonton Indian Residential School and watched as his culture and people were shunted aside and violated through a colonial, racist system.
After leaving the school in 1958, Guno lived in Prince Rupert before moving to Vancouver to attend the University of BC, where he pursued a law degree. In 1986 he became the NDP MLA for the former Atlin district, where he served for five years as an instrumental voice for Indigenous representation in legislature.
He also had a pioneering role in designing the Nisga’a Agreement, Canada’s first modern-day treaty. On May 10, B.C. Premier John Horgan acknowledged Guno’swork during celebrations of the treaty’s 19th anniversary in Victoria.
Over five years, Guno began documenting his time at the Edmonton Residential School, using theatre as a vehicle to tell his story.
The characters in Bunk #7 were modelled after his own tightly knit group of friends who found friendship and strength together within the crushing void of the residential school system. The number seven refers to Guno’s bunk number in the dorm.
With the help of Brorup Weston and Indigenous playwright Yvette Nolan, Guno’s play was workshopped by the Native Earth theatre collective and was slated to debut in Toronto in 2006.
Though it never made the stage as a full production, the play was read to audiences in Toronto with Guno’s family members present. Since then, it’s been read to other residential school survivors and Indigenous communities, including a 2014 Truth and Reconciliation event in Edmonton.
Detailed within the play is the positive relationship the boys had with their English supervisor, Mr. O’Keefe. He was suddenly fired, possibly because he raised allegations that the vice-principal was a child predator. One of the boys the vice principal had abused ran away and froze to death on the Prairie, Weston says.
The decision outraged the boys and they rioted, causing the staff to lock themselves away in their rooms.
“It’s a story that demonstrates resilience through the worst kind of adversity, that’s the most important thing. These boys had to form their own community even though they were from different cultures,” Weston says. “The human spirit in the face of adversity can demonstrate unbelievable resilience to get to a good place.”
In an excerpt one character reflects on the beauty of his home, the one he was taken hundreds of miles away from.
“Oh God, at this moment, we are all thinking of home, of our families, of the places that we miss, we thank you for all the beautiful things, like the sea, the sound of the breakers rolling in, the call of the raven, the quiet murmur of the rivers, the sound of the voices of our forefathers from the forest, and most of all, God, the mountains and all our relations.”
Brorup Weston picked the project up again with the intention of keeping her promise to Larry Guno that she would direct and stage the play for his people. She and the Guno family founded the theatre company Raven Collective in Guno’s memory with the dedication of staging Bunk #7. Their goal is to perform the play across Canada and to foster the development of Indigenous theatre in northern B.C.
The Collective recently announced the project had received its first funding through the First People’s Cultural Council. The Nisga’a Village of Gitlatx’daamiks has also announced their support of the project through training support for emerging northwest BC First Nations actors working on the project.
Bunk #7 has also been selected to participate in Native Earth Performing Arts’ Weesageechak Begins to Dance, an Indigenous new play festival in Toronto this fall.
“There’s some very serious interest in moving this play forward. Indigenous theatre is only going to get bigger, there are just too many stories to be told.”
An audition date has not yet been scheduled but young Indigenous emerging actors can contact Marianne Weston directly for more information. Workshops will be organized over the next 10 months with the goal of staging the play in Terrace and Gitlatx’daamiks next May.