Deneh’Cho Thompson, a displaced and dispossessed member of the Pehdzeh ki Nation, became an academic because he wanted others to have a better experience with theatre education than he did.
Responding to experiences such as Thompson’s, a Brock University co-led research project is putting the spotlight on minoritized voices.
Staging Better Futures/Mettre en scène de meilleurs avenirs (SBF/MSMA) is the first national, cross-sectoral partnership approach to decolonizing, anti-racist, equitable, diverse and inclusive systemic change ever undertaken in post-secondary theatre education in Canada.
On Tuesday, Aug. 29, it was announced the project has been awarded a $2.5-million Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Grant. Contributions from partner organizations bring the project budget to more than $5.5 million, with Brock making the largest partner organization contribution of $1.57 million in cash and in-kind contributions over seven years.
The funding announcement — made by Randy Boissonnault, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Official Languages, on behalf of François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and Mark Holland, Minister of Health — included more than $960 million supporting more than 4,700 researchers and research projects across Canada.
Jennifer Roberts-Smith, Professor and Chair of Dramatic Arts (DART) at Brock, is co-leader of SBF/MSMA along with Nicole Nolette, University of Waterloo Associate Professor of French Studies and Canada Research Chair in Minority Studies. They observed that while Canadian universities and colleges have been working on local equity initiatives, there is no platform yet for sharing valuable information on providing an equitable and welcoming environment for minoritized theatre students and educators.
Thompson dropped out of high school and college and took more than 10 years to finish his undergraduate degree because of the systemic racism he experienced. He is now a member of the governance committee on the project.
Even while he was a student, as interest increased in Indigenous theatre, Thompson found people, including faculty and mentors, looked to him to provide Indigenous expertise.
But “I was alone,” he said of his time studying in Vancouver. “I didn’t have supports in the university or in my program. I didn’t have anyone I could look up to.” Thompson has since become an Assistant Professor and co-ordinator of the wîcêhtowin Theatre Program at the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Drama.
SBF/MSMA’s key areas of focus are racialization; Indigeneity; gender diversity; disability; and linguistic minoritization. The project’s guiding principle is that it centres the voices of students and educators with lived experiences of exclusion, such as Thompson.
Brock DART students Hayley King and Benoit St-Aubin echo Thompson’s calls for greater representation of faculty from historically under-represented backgrounds in theatre departments.
“In attempts to sympathize with and accurately represent the experience of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) students onstage, non-BIPOC individuals fall prone to tokenism and misrepresentation,” said King, who is of biracial Black and South Asian descent. “Having someone in the department with the same lived experiences as these students can serve as a voice for them when injustices are committed.”
For St-Aubin, who is from the Niagara region and whose first language is French, it’s also important to decolonize curriculum and repertoire.
“Historically, Canadian theatre has subscribed to Eurocentric ideologies, which has skewed the education we receive,” they said. “By introducing non-Western, non-European theatre practices to students, our department can shape us into well-rounded theatre practitioners and academics.”
Roberts-Smith said there needs to be a transition “from small-scale solutions within our own institutions to thinking collaboratively about how we do post-secondary theatre education more equitably across Canada.”
In the course of preparing the grant, the project leaders developed a wide network of collaborators with lived experience of systemic inequity and expertise in combating it. The fully bilingual project now involves more than 90 participants across Canada, with representation from colleges, universities, theatre companies, arts services organizations, a student caucus and a freelance artist-educator consultancy. There are seven Brock faculty members involved in the project, mostly from Dramatic Arts.
“Receiving this prestigious, highly competitive award is an outstanding achievement,” said Brock University Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon.
“The research team’s success demonstrates the need for systemic practices and structures in dramatic arts education to be transformed so that knowledge and expertise from minoritized artist-educators form a core part of the education,” he said.
The Partnership Grant covers a period of seven years.
Partnership Grants are the largest that SSHRC offers, supporting formal partnerships between academic researchers, businesses and other partners that will advance knowledge and understanding on critical issues of intellectual, social, economic and cultural significance.
In addition to the Partnership Grants, SSHRC announced Tuesday that seven Brock researchers were awarded a total $965,636 in Insight Grants, which support research judged worthy of funding by fellow researchers and/or other experts. The University also received more than $4.8 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for a variety of projects.