“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



Songs of Law? — Thinking about Indigenous and Settler Laws on the Use of Music


Sometimes I wonder if life in a law school doesn’t involve a “Midas Effect” — that is, everywhere you turn, everything you touch seems to involve (or become?) law.  I have been noticing this myself with respect to the law school’s ongoing obligations under TRC Call to Action #28.  I have been increasingly noticing how often questions of Indigenous Law seem to be in my field of vision.   Or perhaps I am only now beginning to see/acknowledge what was there all along?

Here is a specific.   I was on a phone call with my sister this morning, and the conversation (which was focused as it often is on activities with kids) moved from stories about the family dog, to piles of laundry and Orange Shirt Day and finally turning to the Louis Riel Opera with the Nisga’a song in it.  What, said I?  A Louis Riel Opera with a Nisga’a song in it?!  I had missed that discussion (a list of links to media discussions about the opera follow below)


As is our way, my inner interrogator emerged, and so the conversation turned to questions about music, appropriation, and intellectual property law.  It was not the conversation I expected, but it has really had me thinking all day.  And it had me thinking about how a piece like the Louis Riel Opera could open space for a discussion of Indigenous Law in a very particularized way:  that is,  in the context of a Nisga’a song being drawn into a Settler/Canadian piece of music.  We have here an encounter involving two legal orders, each of which has rules about the creation and performance of music.

I asked my sister if she would write up a few paragraphs that I could share on this blog, paragraphs that would capture the essence of our conversation, with its questions about what the Opera might have to teach us about law and legality.  She, still sometimes pressed to fill the role of ‘relatively compliant younger sibling’, agreed!


I am a settler who grew up on Treaty 7 territories.  I graduated from the University of Calgary with a Bachelor of Art in Canadian Studies.  I love Canada.  I love being exposed to Canadian art, music, and literature.   I now live in Ottawa/Gatineau on unceded traditional territory of the Algonquin Nation.  Because I live in the Nation’s Capital Region, I am constantly surrounded by opportunities to participate in cultural activities celebrating Canada and its diverse talents.  These opportunities were intensified in 2017 with the Canada 150 celebrations.  I often felt conflicted during these celebrations as I don’t think Canada’s nation-building efforts are to be celebrated as such.  We need to not only acknowledge the harm Canada’s nation-building efforts have brought to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, but we also need to recognize these harms are not only historical, they are on-going.  Every Canadian needs to be engaged in doing the work of reconciliation.


With this in mind, I tried to be thoughtful and deliberate about my participation.  When I realized I would have the chance to take my family to see the Louis Riel opera, I wanted to attend. I love opera, and there is a not a lot of Canadian opera.  But I was also very aware that this opera would be infused with appropriation.  Before the performance, I had read about some of the innovative ways this 50th anniversary production of the Opera attempted to acknowledge this appropriation, including a Land Assembly, a mostly silent group on the ground, dressed in red to represent Metis and First Nations peoples.  For me, watching the Land Assembly bear witness through the opera was very powerful.

What I had not read about in advance was not expecting, and what perhaps touched me the most, was a pre-show in the lobby by a group of Nisga’a Nation singers.  The group then moved onto the Opera stage to open the show.  A musical highlight of the opera is the third act’s opening aria, Song of Skateen. The Kuyas lullaby is sung by Riel’s wife, Marguerite. As noted in the program, the song is actually a Nisga’a lament from the West Coast, incorrectly used by Somers and Moore (the composers of the opera) in this context. Nisga’a protocol dictates such songs must only be sung at the appropriate times and only by those who hold the hereditary right to sing them. To shed light on this, a prelude to the opera featured a group of Nisga’a Nation singers, who acknowledged the fact the song was taken from them, and performed a victory song of their own.

I think this example of the Louis Riel opera taking and misusing a Nisga’a song provides an opportunity to initiate discussions around compensation for the use of cultural/intellectual property.  Western intellectual property laws often focus on monetary compensation for the use of cultural property, or address use through licensing.  But what are other possibilities where monetary compensation does not come close to addressing the issue?  What other ways could we approach this situation?  How do different indigenous legal systems work through such conflicts?


  1.  Here is a short piece from the Queen’s Gazette,  interviewing Prof. Dylan Robinson (Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts).  Queen’s Gazette, “A dialogue on Indigenous law, song and opera” Monday, April 24, 2017 http://www.queensu.ca/gazette/stories/dialogue-indigenous-law-song-and-opera
  2. Michael Cooper, “Canada Turns 150, but a Silent Chorus Isn’t Celebrating” (April 19, 2017) New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/arts/music/canada-turns-150-but-a-silent-chorus-isnt-celebrating.html