“What is missing?”: Marie Clements’s New Opera about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Violence against Indigenous women and girls is pervasive in Canada. The National Inquiry  Interim Report, (Our Women and Girls are Sacred) cites an estimate that Indigenous women are “12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely than Caucasian women” (at pp. 7-8). And the Native Women’s Association of Canada points out that numbers alone communicate little about the lives of Indigenous women and girls, or the calamitous losses experienced by their families and communities.  As NWAC point out in their discussion of the Faceless Dolls Project,  “each statistic tells a story.”

The cast of Missing (photo credit: Dean Kalyan)

In a new chamber opera that debuted in 2017 in British Columbia, librettist Marie Clements and composer Brian Current portray ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous women and girls and emphasize the need for difficult learning.

Missing, performed in English and the Gitxsan language, immerses audience members in a discomfiting comparison of the divergent life chances of two young women with similar aspirations. Ava, a white law student, passes by a hitchhiker on the notorious Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears” where so many women have gone missing. After a car accident, she glimpses the body of a high school student, a character Clements names only “Native Girl,” who stands in for the multitude of lost girls and women.

Ava returns to her studies after recovering and encounters Dr. Wilson, a guest lecturer, whose discussion of missing and murdered Indigenous women challenges students to move beyond fleeting sympathy to grapple with their own complicity. “What is missing,” Dr. Wilson asks the students, in a society that “can’t recognize another human being as another human being?” One of Ava’s classmates disavows shared responsibility for the structures and histories that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence; she angrily insists that they are to blame for their own “bad choices.”

forever-loved-FINAL-cover-small.jpgThe student’s defensive reaction in the opera, and her reliance on problematic stereotypes, will be familiar to many instructors. Maxine Matilpi explains that “when we dispel lies and deal with the omissions from their prior education, non-Indigenous students tell me that they would rather we didn’t spend so much class time on colonization or racism; they find it uncomfortable and frustrating, even irritating” (See her article “Personal Political Pedagogy with Respect to #MMIW” in D. Memee Lovell-Harvard and Jennifer Brant, eds, Forever Loved: Exposing the Hidden Crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada (2016), p. 264).

But in the opera, Ava, is not defensive.  She has been transformed by her near-fatal accident, and is receptive to Dr. Wilson, who instructs her in the Gitxsan language and then mentors her when she becomes a new mother. The care and cultural teachings that Ava receives are further reminders of what the other young woman was deprived of by her assailant, while scenes of her mother’s limitless grief portray how badly she is missed. As Ava encounters Native Girl in uncanny ways, she learns to reach out to her, offering care and witnessing.

Marie Clements, an acclaimed Métis playwright (she is also the writer and director of the new film The Road Forward), when interviewed about Missing, said that her desire was to create a work in this Opera that would engage the empathy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous audience members by portraying “a Canadian story . . . one that we’re all responsible to.”

The disappearances and tragic deaths continue, and at the first hearings of the National Inquiry, families have described losses that extend across generations. Marilyn Dumont, a Métis poet and professor, commemorates Helen Betty Osborne, a high school student who had to move away from home to attend high school. “Betty,” Dumont writes, “if I set out to write this poem about you / it might turn out instead / to be about me / or any one of /my female relatives.”

Clements’ opera is a great resource for those looking for ways to engage with the difficult realities of our shared colonial histories in ways that make this story one that we are all responsible to.


Chantelle Bellerichard, “New opera about MMIWG tells a story ‘that we’re all responsible to,’ says co-creator” (Oct 29, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-opera-to-premiere-in-vancouver-next-week-1.4375797

Sarah Petrescu, “Power of Opera Gives Story of Missing Indigenous Women Emotional Depth” (Nov 21, 2017) http://www.timescolonist.com/entertainment/power-of-opera-gives-story-of-missing-indigenous-women-emotional-depth-1.23099825

Interim Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, “Our Women and Girls are Sacred” (2017) http://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/files/ni-mmiwg-interim-report-en.pdf

Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendation Report (2006) http://www.turtleisland.org/healing/highwayoftears.pdf

Jorge Barerra, “100s of Faceless Dolls Disappear” (Oct 10, 2017) http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/mmiwg-faceless-dolls-disappear-1.4363768