Last week we were at the International Playback Theatre Network (IPTN) conference in Montreal, where along with marvelous summer festivals, the city was discussing the Oka crisis of twenty-five years ago. In a very familiar conversation, Federal and provincial governments were heralding the great improvement in their relations with First Nations people, while many Indigenous communities maintain not much has changed.
At the conference, there was a general absence of Aboriginal voices. The conference organizers attempted to enlist local First Nations people in opening the conference but were unable to do so till the last moment. In the end, the young Innu woman who invoked the spirits and blessed the conference participants was magnificent.
On the disability front, the hotel was more-or-less accessible, as long as someone, usually Jennie, opened the doors to other parts of the hotel and the underground. My scooter was parked in the middle of our hotel room, a greatly appreciated, leg saving presence that filled much space. Outside, the streets had what passed as curb cuts, although many were too high or jagged for a scooter to easily navigate. Half the conference was held at Concordia University, about a mile from the primary site, and the sidewalks were often unusable due to construction.
The second site was to be served by shuttle buses in the morning but not in the evening. These buses were not power chair or scooter friendly, and while we could have caught a cab back to the residences after the days meetings and workshops, few cabs were scooter accessible, so we took the buses in the morning and a cab on return. To make matters worse, evening events were spread out across several locations, making for a generally inaccessible conference and working to reinforce my concerns regarding Playback and disability.
At breakfast on the first morning we, a rather diverse small group, spoke about the previous night’s dinner, and how it reflected our experience of the larger Playback world. The prior evening, in between thundershowers, we walked a couple of miles (we were told it was about a twenty-minute walk; familiar, yes?) to Old Town for dinner. There were six of us, three North Americans. On the walk over, we passed several groups of people drinking alcohol, many of whom were First Nations or Inuit. Identities matter, as alcoholism, rather than being a trait of Indigenous people, is a powerful functionary of Colonialism, and a vehicle for genocide, but the Indigenous identities if the drinkers remained invisible to the other walkers.
Playback is all about stories, yet there are stories that remain largely off-limits: the Native experience, slavery, and disability to name but three. Although Playback professes to be emancipatory, it is, like most aspects of culture, deeply grounded in the social conventions of the countries in which is made. The conversation at breakfast circled around Indigenous people, North American persons of color, and our shared invisibility in the Playback world.
I still find myself engaging in conversations about the necessity of fully including Indigenous and disabled persons in the Playback community. Interestingly, much attention is given by Playbackers to exceptions to the general exclusion, although this is true only up to a point as discussion of Indigenous rights and experience is often completely off-limits in conversation with Playbackers from countries with questionable human rights records regarding First Nations people. This silencing can can feel pretty lonely, and inevitably brings up my inner critic who, fearing rejection, asserts I am neither a “good Indian” nor a “nice disabled person.”
Issues of inclusion are ongoing in the Playback world, as they are in daily life. I know, and deeply appreciate, that the conference steering committee worked innumerable hours to bring about this conference, and accomplished much with few resources. I also appreciate those who advocated for an Indigenous and disability inclusive conference. Upon reflection, it is evident there has been movement in addressing these issues over the years; still, we have, as a community, a long way to go before Indigenous and disability experienced voices are truly included.