BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
We are stuck in traffic at the beginning of “The Welland Canal Play,” a local production that finished its run in St. Catharines and stopped by Old Pelham Town Hall for a single show last Thursday evening. A woman driving to her first day at a new job waits at one of the Welland Canal’s lift bridges.
“What’s that sound?” she says, as a foghorn honks. “Are we moving? Is the bridge coming down?”
She looks off to the side and is quickly deflated.
The scene closes with her going nowhere, but soon the play picks up, and we are thrown headlong into the canal’s nearly two centuries of history.
“The Welland Canal Play” is a technically impressive work. Its actors portray a handful of characters each—they flip between accents and faces with an easy fluency—and sing well-written melodies with great ability.
But the play’s foundational success is its script. Playwright Kevin Hobbs weaves a quilt of intricate perspectives. There are those that we expect to hear—the English-sounding officials seeking to build the canal for political and economic purposes. “Father of the Canal” William Hamilton Merritt features heavily, as he works himself sick trying to secure land and funding for the construction. Hobbs is sure to point out the costs to those who worked on the canals, mostly to the immigrants who spent long, poorly-paid days in the muck, risking death from drowning, crushing, or cholera.
These victims, however, are merely ones of the process, and not of the overall mission of re-routing the natural course of the water. The true underlying conflict in the play comes to the fore only when we are introduced to a series of Indigenous characters.
The first Welland Canal took its water from the Grand River, which was dammed in order to allow for the diversion. In 1829 and 1830, 2500 acres of Six Nations land was flooded, a destruction for which settlement negotiations are still ongoing. In 2008, the Canadian government offered Six Nations $28 million in compensation; Six Nations argued that its members deserved at least $500 million to make up for the 170 years of lost productivity.
In any case, the play’s most striking Indigenous character is an old woman, who hobbles in alone to speak to the crowd after scenes of Merritt trying to build the canal.
“Yes, Mr. Merritt,” she says, acknowledging his certain genius. “But what will you do when the water decides where it wants to flow?”
Her point is clear. In creating an artificial waterway, Merritt & Co. have manipulated the earth in an unnatural manner, the sort of manipulation that can lead to severe consequences. And the mindset that propelled the canal’s proponents then is the same one that pushes forward the sorts of toxic practices now that have left, for instance, residents of Beijing unable to go outside without a mask.
Merritt and the Aboriginal Elder in the play are good representatives of the poles on the development debate, one that at its depths goes down to respective views of the natural world. Merritt’s drive can be simply understood as a perspective that views nature as something to be conquered by society, whereas the Elder’s position is one of reverence.
A famous political philosopher once summarized the problem succinctly: “Nature can be either seen as the raw material of man’s freedom from harsh necessity [Merritt], or else man as the polluter of nature [Indigenous Elder].
The same writer describes the Merritt-like figure as, “the farmer who never looked at trees, fields, and streams with a romantic eye. The trees are to be felled, to make clearings, build houses and heat them; the fields are to be tilled to produce more food, or mined for whatever is necessary to make the machines run.”
The Elder is analogous to the Sierra Club, “dedicated to preventing such violations of nature from going any further, and seems to regret what was already done.” This philosopher is not optimistic that the two positions can be reconciled. He calls the Merritt character a “crisp, positive, efficient, no-nonsense economist. He calls the Sierra Club a “deep, brooding, sombre psychoanalyst,” and concludes that “economists tell us how to make money; psychiatrists give us a place to spend it.”
We live in a Merritt-based society, and projects like the Welland Canal have helped us raise to great heights. A character in the play arrives in Welland from Italy, with little English and even less money. He works back-breaking hours in the quicksand. But his great-great grandchildren probably now live in a comfortable bungalow with central air conditioning. Their life expectancy is double what his was. Starting in 1918 at least 20 million died from the Spanish Flu. The day after I saw the play I received a flu innoculation for free.
As the play’s Elder suggests, the problem with Merritt is that he rushes up a mountain that has no visible summit. When you view the natural world as something to be manipulated and mined, the future can consist only of further manipulation and mining. Now that we’re somewhere up a slope with no end in sight, artworks like this play—and performers like Gord Downie—encourage us to look back at the path that we’ve hacked through the foliage.
The progress has been impressive, but there are areas where re-growth has proved impossible. Those 2500 acres on the banks of the Grand River come to mind.
Many activists and thinkers encourage us to retrace our steps back down from where we’ve come and mend the scarred earth, make the ground fertile again. But descents are almost always more difficult than climbs. Now that the canal is cut in the ground and the ships are flowing through, bringing us ever-more seductive things from the future, it’s difficult to find enough people willing to fill it back in. We’re stuck at the bridge, and the line-up of cars makes it impossible to turn around and try for the tunnel.
In The Welland Canal Play’s closing minutes, we return to that woman who was stuck waiting for yet another ship. The bridge has come down, finally, and she arrives just a few minutes late for her first day of work—on the canal, incidentally. We learn that her name is Marissa and that she is a Mohawk woman.
After a brief scare with a freighter’s hawser and minor conflicts with co-workers, Marissa joins the rest of the stage for a closing musical number.
The Merritts, with guitars and violins, sing in English, strumming and bowing along. And then Marissa begins to sing, in an Indigenous language, her voice carrying over and yet complementing the others. It filled Old Pelham Town Hall from beam to floorboard. The audience was transfixed. Even when the song was over and the cast had taken their bows, the music seemed to still reverberate in the room, and in this, the play achieved its greatest triumph: reconciliation seemed possible, if but for one night only.