October 22, 2020

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Paying homage to Louis Riel and unique Métis language

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/3/2011 (3512 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In 1885, Métis leader Louis Riel prophesied, "My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake it will be the artists who give them their spirit back."

It is hard to say whether Li Rvinant, which made its world première at the Cercle Molière last night, is a wakeup call, but as the first play ever written and performed in the Métis language of Michif, it is a milestone event.


Gabriel Gosselin, left, and Christian Beaudry as James Coutu.

HUBERT PANTEL PHOTO

Gabriel Gosselin, left, and Christian Beaudry as James Coutu.

Winnipeg playwright Rhéal Cenerini does not know if he is one of the artists to which Riel referred.

"It's nice to think you can contribute to that a little bit," says the University of Manitoba agriculture sessional instructor.

There is an irony in that Cenerini, 49, is French-Canadian.

"I'm not Métis, unfortunately," he jokes during a recent telephone interview. "It's cool to be Métis now, I think."

Li Rvinant (The Returning One) is the story of James Coutu, a man, perhaps a ghost or spirit, who returns to the fishing villages of Manitoba in the 1960s. He walks in the steps of his ancestor Riel, equally committed to not tolerating the prejudices, discrimination and poverty inflicted upon his people.

The setting allowed Cenerini to use Michif, a unique French-Cree creole that uses French nouns, Cree verbs and some local vocabulary borrowed from other aboriginal languages. Some linguists class it as moribund, headed for extinction, so Li Rvinant could be significant to its survival.

"It gave me an opportunity to pay homage to a language that has not gotten the recognition it should," says Cenerini, whose previous Cercle plays include Laxton (2004), La tentation d'Henri Ouimet (2000) and La femme d'Urie (1996). "I hope to show how lovely a language it is. I tried to accurately portray the pronunciation and sentence structure. What you can't do in the written form of French Michif is give its lilting tone. It's a far more musical language."

In the Cercle season-ender, which boasts a cast of 16, Cenerini links his hero Coutu to Christ and Riel. He saw parallels between the Jewish belief that the Messiah is coming and the way Riel was a prophet who predicted great things for Métis in Western Canada. For many, he says, Riel has been an enigmatic historical figure.

"People have had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with his prophecies," says the graduate of St. Boniface College. "Was he a prophet? Was he a madman? Was he a visionary? Are we to take them seriously or dismiss them?"

Cenerini, who was born in the Manitoba village of Notre Dame de Lourdes, was well aware that mixing Riel and Christ, religion and politics could get him in trouble with some Cercle patrons.

"You don't go into these subjects without a certain amount of trepidation, but I try to be respectful," he says. "In my case, religion is a big part of who I am and I have a profound respect for it. I'm not trying to destroy anything."

At the commemorative evening held last November in a packed St. Boniface Cathedral to mark the 125th anniversary of the death of Manitoba's founder, Cenerini took to the stage to read a Riel prayer while his daughter played violin.

"It was a pretty special memory," he recalls. "To me, it made sense to use Riel's words because they were the inspiration of my play. I thought it appropriate to have him speak."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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