By: Alison Wick, Arts Editor
“They fought so we could be who we are meant to be. We have to stand up for who we are, and for those that came before us. We have to stand up for each other. It’s something worth fighting for.”
~ Peg, Iron Peggy
Over one hundred years ago, the First World War saw over 600,000 Canadian men and women enlist to fight overseas. Part of this number were more than 4000 Indigenous people. The number is a conservative estimate, as the government at the time only recorded Indigenous soldiers who had status even though status people were not the only ones fighting. Approximately a third of all Indigenous people in Canada aged 18–45 fought in the war, participating in all major battles such as Vimy Ridge and receiving many medals for bravery and heroism.
In Métis playwright Marie Clements’ new play, Iron Peggy, these soldiers are remembered and highlighted as Clements brings them back to help give a young girl courage and strength. The show stars Peg, played by Adele Noronha, a young South Asian girl being bullied at her boarding school. The play opens by pulling us into her world, where she is alienated by everyone in her life from her father to her classmates to the school administration. When she hears the cold news of the sudden passing of her only solace, her grandmother, Peg becomes lost in grief and doesn’t know where to turn.
Here, we meet the three little Indigenous toy soldiers, who come to life after she falls asleep. Peg learns about the bravery and importance of Indigenous soldiers in the war, and about how to stand up to her own bullies, as they inspire courage in her through their stories.
The show premiered last Tuesday, May 28, at the Vancouver International Children’s Festival in front of an audience of young schoolkids and the public. The play was commissioned by the festival, in conjunction with Boca del Lupo and Clements’ Red Diva Projects, through funding from the Canada Council for the Arts’ New Chapter Program.
The show also incorporates video and animation into the live performance. Along with lighting and other technical directions under the artistic direction of Sherry J. Yoon, this helps convey how big and scary seemingly insignificant problems are when you’re young.
The protagonists are all inspired by real-life soldiers including Anishinaabe WWI veteran Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow (for whom the protagonist is also named), played by Deneh’Cho Thompson (Dene). Pegahmagabow was actually Canada’s most decorated First Nations soldier enlisted with the 23rd regiment, a fact unknown to most Canadians. The other two soldiers are also inspired by real, decorated Indigenous soldiers: Henry Louis Norwest (Métis), played by Raes Calvert (Métis), and George McLean (Okanagan), played by Taran Kootenhayoo (Denesułįné & Stoney Nakoda).
It is these people that Clements wants audiences to know and learn more about. To feel inspired by them. To remember and find strength in their strength as we fight our own battles, especially children who feel lost and helpless like the protagonist.
This is Clements’ first show intended for children and young audiences. She does an expert job in presenting a serious yet accessible show that includes plenty of comic relief without pandering to the audience or upstaging the purpose of the show. The show is about bullying (and racialized bullying), fear, loneliness, and the power of fighting for yourself and those you love.
And sitting in the audience, you could feel the kids responding to it. Throughout the show, they were wholly engaged with the characters onstage, and gave the actors a huge round of applause at the curtain call.
A multimedia production, Iron Peggy is a captivating, informative, and inspiring show that celebrates the heroes we can’t forget to remember.
Though the play’s Vancouver run ended on May 31, they have a study guide available online where you can learn about the show and the history. The show is also set to go on tour, although dates are yet to be announced.