Chasing Kitimat

Going Backwards to Move Forward

This week on HowlRound we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, begun a year ago, in honor of Earth Week 2016. How does our work reflect on, and responds to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding? American Canadian playwright Elaine Ávila, one of my colleagues in the Climate Change Theatre Action, talks about her work on her play Kitimat and her relationship to ancestors, land, and story. —Chantal Bilodeau

When I was commissioned to write an environmental play, the subject I chose to write about ended up in the midst of an international controversy. I was researching an article for the Vancouver Observer (VO), a newspaper admired for practicing deep, investigative journalism. Anthropologist Wade Davis’ warning that Northern Canada was about to be hit with a “tsunami” of industrial development concerned me. I planned to investigate the impact of this development on individual cities in the North, starting with Kitimat, a remote municipality near Alaska and 1,111 miles/ 1410 km driving distance from Vancouver. As Davis says, “One of our challenges in Canada is that we love the north, but we never go there.”

The oil company Enbridge had selected Kitimat to be the terminus of a proposed pipeline project transporting bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, one of the largest remaining oil deposits on earth, to super tankers in Kitimat’s port, to be refined in Asia. Arguably, Kitimat needed the project. Originally founded in the 1950s to service one of the largest smelters in North America, Kitimat boasted residents from all over the world in its New York planned, mid-century modern “Utopia.” By 2007, due to modernization and closing of its pulp mill, Kitimat was the fastest declining town in Canada. I had travelled there as a Theatre Consultant in the 1990s, coaching directors throughout British Columbia, and was stunned to discover that Kitimat was 50 percent Portuguese. Amazingly, these Portuguese residents are from the Azores, remote mid-Atlantic islands, where my grandparents were born.

VO’s Managing Editor Jenny Uechi asked how I would get the residents of Kitimat to speak to me. I confidently said, “I’m Portuguese.” But writing the article was proving difficult. As a playwright, I was getting mired in backstory and in seeing all sides. To make matters worse, Kitimat was under a “tsunami’’ of paperwork. The Canadian National Government, then headed by Prime Minster Stephen Harper, had undertaken a controversial environmental assessment process. Harper’s National Energy Board heard hours of testimony. Walter Thorne, a member of the Kitimat Valley Naturalists, movingly said: “We appeal to the world, we are a gem under siege.”

When the pipeline project was approved by Harper’s National Government, city council did something extraordinary. They asked Kitimat to put it to a vote, becoming one of the only municipalities in Canada or the US to vote on whether or not they wanted Big Oil. The controversy became international. Journalists all over Canada, and as far away as Britain, began covering the story.

two women posing on train tracks
Elaine Avila and Janet Hayatshahi in Kitimat. Photo by Playwright Robin Rowland.

I interviewed Sylvia de Sousa, a citizen fighting to keep the wording of their upcoming city council plebiscite clear for seniors and English as Second Language residents. I asked her where she found the conviction to stand up in civic politics. She said it came from her grandkids, future generations. She quoted her mother, of German heritage, who used to say, “the only land we inherit is our grave.”

When Art Horowitz and James Taylor, of Pomona College in Claremont, California called to offer me a commission to write an environmental play, I suddenly realized I was researching my new play. My first question, inspired by my Maori, Inuit and Coast Salish playwriting colleagues, became: “What is my relationship to ancestors, land, and story?” For those of us who are immigrants how do we answer?

As I was writing, Enbridge began mounting a huge pro-pipeline publicity campaign in Kitimat, all of the cities of the North and the largest local metropolis, Vancouver. Serious rifts were happening in Kitimat. Family dinners were descending into bitter fights. Long-term friends were no longer speaking.

My play is about two sisters: Marta, who works for years to bring a pipeline project to Kitimat, and Julia, who organizes against it due to the serious risks involved. When Janet Hayatshahi came on board to direct, we both raised the money to go to Kitimat for a research trip. Janet is committed, collaborative, and formerly one of the core members of San Diego’s innovative Sledgehammer ensemble. Of Iranian descent, she knows how a culture can quickly change because of oil. After writing several drafts of the play, I was ready to hone in on what I didn’t know.

Kitimat became one of the first Portuguese plays ever performed in California or British Columbia. Finding these lost voices began to awaken something new—confidence, connection, and a spirit of questioning.

two actresses on stage
Katia Mafra Spencer as Marta and Sarah Lopez as Julia in Kitimat, directed by Janet Hayatshahi. Photo by Carrie Rosema, courtesy of Pomona College.

But I was still nervous about interviewing people who were going through so much.

I anxiously dialed the number of the Kitimat Museum and Archives. The teenage intern answering the phone cut me off saying, “Oh, I’m a play writer!” Then, “You need to interview my mom.” I asked, “Who is your mom?” She said, “The Head of Economic Development for Kitimat.” Her mom, Rose Klukas, ended up telling us professional and personal stories of growing up in a boom and bust economy.

After multiple attempts to contact the Kitimat Valley Naturalists, I got an email from a gentleman named Peter Ponter. I fumblingly tried to explain what Janet and I wanted to do. Peter promised to take us hiking in the gem of wilderness surrounding Kitimat. He arranged for us to meet Patricia Lange, one of the key organizers of the anti-pipeline movement. Her stories ended up being core to the play, especially after her side won the vote, and “Kitimat” became a rallying cry in protests and Climate Change Marches throughout the province. After helping us, Peter Ponter suddenly sounded apprehensive. “I’m in the theatre,” he said. “Would you and Janet have dinner with us?” We agreed. Theatre also opened the doors of the Portuguese Hall. The “Portuguese Kids,” a comedy troupe from Massachusetts, were performing. I volunteered to cook and serve food, making it possible for me to hear stories and songs from Kitimat’s first residents, who fled fascist Portugal.

I wanted to meet renowned novelist Eden Robinson, from the nearby Haisla village of Kitamaat. In her CBC radio interview, Robinson described Haisla storytelling protocols and her incredible novel set in the area, Monkey Beach. Eden mentioned she misses other writers. Because of being a playwright, I reached out and we had an incredible visit of several hours. One of her cousins, Nancy Nyce, let me quote her directly in the play.

an actor and an actress holding hands
Yasmin Adams as Clara, Juan Zamudio as Jose in Kitimat, directed by Janet Hayatshahi. Photo by Carrie Rosema, courtesy of Pomona College.

Kitimat became one of the first Portuguese plays ever performed in California or British Columbia. Finding these lost voices began to awaken something new—confidence, connection, and a spirit of questioning. Kathleen Flaherty, dramaturg at Vancouver’s Playwrights Theatre Centre, programmed a workshop involving Portuguese theatre professionals, who movingly said they had never played Portuguese characters before. When the play was performed in Lisbon, this little story about the impact of Big Oil connected us across oceans and generations.

At the premiere of Janet’s marvelous production at Pomona College, my Portuguese family crowded around Yasmin Adams, the actress playing Clara, the grandmother, as if she were one of our relatives come back to life. Yasmin did a beautiful job of singing a Portuguese fado song called “O Gente da Minha Terra.” My image was of the past singing to the future.

What does this mean in terms of our individual responsibility to impact climate change? When I wrote about presentations of the play in Lisbon, Bellingham and Vancouver, a Kitimat resident shared one of my Facebook posts, writing, “It proves everyone’s stories matter, no matter how small or out of the way.”

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Thoughts from the curator

How does our work reflect on, and respond to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding?

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change

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So looking forward to reading your play now, Elaine. Thanks for sharing! Ours is a great connection made possible by the LTC Seattle Convening... and a Sunday night stray walk near the U of WA university district, where, after wondering around alone, at a local restaurant there were Elaine (whom I hadn't met) and Tlaloc and Rose and Trevor (who is EVERYWHERE!). And there we met. Total serendipity, of the wonder/ful kind!

A Portuguese community in northern BC... who knew? One of the seminal works of Canadian literature is Hugh MacLennan's 1945 novel TWO SOLITUDES, about the yawning cultural divide between French- and English-speaking Canadians.The solitudes that make up our country are very much alive and kicking. These days, though, we know there are a lot more than two.

Wonderful article! I love the synchronicity and how different communities came together for this project. Yes, all our stories matter and need to be shared. 'Kitimat!'