The decades-long impact of mercury poisoning on a northern Ontario First Nations community is the basis for Dora award-winning Anishinaabe artist Waawaate Fobister’s performance Omaagomaan, presented by Public Energy Performing Arts on Thursday, February 2nd at the Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough.
The contamination of the Anishinaabe community of Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation), located around 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora, began in 1962 when Dryden Chemicals Ltd. — which used mercury to produce large amounts of chlorine and sodium hydroxide for the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company for bleaching paper — discharged almost 10,000 kilograms of the toxic substance into the Wabigoon River, upstream from Grassy Narrows.
Considered one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters, the mercury dump not only poisoned the fish that were the community’s staple food, but continues to affect the physical and mental health of Grassy Narrows First Nation’s 1,500 members more than 60 years later, long after the mercury first entered the food chain. A study published last March in the journal Environmental Health estimates 90 per cent of the community’s members still have symptoms of mercury poisoning, ranging from neurological problems to seizures and cognitive delays.
In addition to dealing with the ongoing effects of mercury contamination, Grassy Narrows First Nation is also continuing to defend its territory from the Canadian forest industry, after the Ontario government issued a clear-cutting forestry licence in 1997 to Abitibi-Consolidated Inc.
Waawaate Fobister grew up on Grassy Narrows First Nation and, at the age of 18, came out as two-spirited. They got their spirit name Waawaate — pronounced wah-wah-tay, it’s an Anishinaabemowin word for the Northern Lights — as they began to explore their native spirituality.
An actor, dancer, playwright, choreographer, instructor, and producer, Waawaate trained and studied theatre arts and performance at Humber College, Indigenous dance at Banff Centre for the Arts, and intensives at Toronto Dance Theatre, Centre for Indigenous Theatre, and Kahawi Dance Theatre. Waawaate has performed in many major theatre companies across Canada and their work and research has taken them to many places around the world as an artist.
VIDEO: Waawaate Fobister is Omaagomaan
Waawaate’s experiences as a two-spirited member of Grassy Narrows First Nation, where they encountered homophobia and abuse, was the basis for their semi-autobiographical one-person play Agokwe (“two-spirited”), which premiered in 2008 at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and went on to win six two Dora awards, including for outstanding actor and outstanding new play.
In their latest work Omaagomaan (an Anishinaabemowin word that loosely translates as “someone biting someone else really hard”), Waawaate embodies the titular two-spirit being that is a manifestation of man-made poisons including mercury that have seeped into the earth. A fierce shape-shifter inspired by Anishinaabe cosmology, Omaagomaan is a collision between the maanaadizi (“ugly”) and the onizhishi (“beautiful”).
“It’s about the fierce land defenders of Grassy Narrows, my reserve, because of the mercury poisoning and forestry happening that’s been plaguing my people,” Waawaate told APTN News after the performance premiered in Winnipeg in 2019.
“I take on the role and responsibility of storyteller, to tell the story of my community — of my people and thinking about the seven generations behind and the seven generations ahead, and me being a vessel to tell what’s happening right now,” added Waawaate, who himself suffers from mercury poisoning,
With original direction by Troy Emery Twigg, sound and composition by Marc Meriläinen, and costume by Sage Paul, Omaagomaan takes the audience on a journey of dance, storytelling, spectacle, surprise, and a unique blend of original soundscapes and musical composition. Remounted in 2022 after pandemic restrictions were lifted, Omaagomaan was performed in Munich, Germany, this past November to critical acclaim.
“Fobister combines ritual dance and sound elements with increasingly desperate gestures of defence, anger, mechanical subordination, and rebellion,” writes Yvonne Poppek in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. “A nature-loving lifestyle meets industry, fishing meets poison, birth meets infant death. Fobister delivers gestural scraps of association, fed by the power of a struggle against the injustice done to people and nature.”
Waawaate will perform Omaagomaan at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre for one night only, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 2nd.
Tickets for the all-ages performance are pay what you can, from $5 to $30, and are available in person at the Market Hall box office at 140 Charlotte Street from 12 to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday or online anytime at tickets.markethall.org.
You can also reserve tickets by email or phone (no credit card required) by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 705-745-1788.
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