When The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ premiered at last year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival, it offered a pathway to reconciliation that had never been seen before on-screen. In the John Bolton-directed film, a highly regarded Canadian soprano and members of the Syilx Okanagan Nation embark on a collaborative and deeply emotional journey to decolonize a Canadian opera.
At the centre of The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ is a fun-filled friendship between the soprano, Heather Pawsey, and Syilx educator, elder, and singer Delphine Derickson Armstrong. On Thursday (December 14), the documentary will be available free on-demand on Telus Optik TV Channel 8. It will also be online at watchtelusoriginals.com.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Derickson Armstrong tells Pancouver in a Zoom chat.
Pawsey, who is also on the call, chimes in that she could never have imagined that when she met Derickson Armstrong in 2012, it would culminate in a film that people can see around the world.
“I just keep pinching myself—‘Wow, this is happening’ ” Pawsey says.
This astonishing project that began in 1995. Back then, Pawsey was spending weeks at the Canadian Music Centre looking for an aria to sing in the Eckhardt-Gramatté National Music Competition.
“One day, this big, handwritten unpublished score fell on the table,” Pawsey says in the film. “I opened it and I looked at it. And I went ‘This is it.’”
The Lake leads to backstage meeting
It was Canadian composer Barbara Pentland’s score for The Lake. The libretto by Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay told the story of a married couple, Susan and John Allison, who set up a homestead as the first white settlers on the west side of Okanagan Lake. They were assisted by a Syilx woman named Marie and a Métis man named Johnny MacDougall.
The libretto leaned heavily on Susan’s memoirs and shared a story of her allegedly seeing a sea monster in the lake.
Pawsey won the singing competition, but that wasn’t the end of this tale. She later sang the role of Susan Allison in a semi-stage premiere of The Lake at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in 2012. Her company, Astrolabe Musik Theatre, and Turning Point Ensemble co-produced this show.
Unbeknownst to Pawsey, Derickson Armstrong was in the audience listening to every word.
Derickson Armstrong tells Pancouver that she enjoyed Pawsey’s singing but wanted to speak to her about a couple of lines in the opera. So, the Syilx elder asked if she could meet the soprano backstage.
In the hallway of the Chan Centre, Derickson Armstrong shared her concerns. In particular, she didn’t think that Syilx belief about a Spirit of Okanagan Lake was presented accurately. The elder also recommended staging the production in Westbank in her traditional territory before mounting it in Vancouver.
“People in Westbank would know the history,” Derickson Armstrong says.
Opera premieres on homestead site
Pawsey recalls that Derickson Armstrong approached her with a big smile and kindness. This helped melt her fears of offending an elder with her performance. Pawsey reciprocated by responding with an open heart and a willingness to listen.
“She was telling me there are things that are right and here are things that are wrong about this opera,” Pawsey says.
The soprano asked Derickson Armstrong for advice. Much to Pawsey’s surprise, the elder responded that she would like to sing something in her own language.
“We just looked at each other, going ‘Who knows if this could even work? But you know what? We’re just going to try. We’re just going to do it,’ ” Pawsey says.
Pawsey knew the Stewart family who own Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, which was the site of Susan and John Allison’s original homestead in the Okanagan. It’s in the traditional unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation, which includes the Westbank First Nation and six other member communities.
As a result of this connection, Astrolabe Musik Theatre and Turning Point Ensemble staged their world premiere of The Lake at this location in 2014 collaboration with the Westbank First Nation. In addition to Pentland’s compositions, this production included original music by Leslie Uyeda and original dance by Corinne Derickson. Her mom, Derickson Armstrong, sang “Okanagan Song” and “Strawberry Song”.
Lesson of The Lake
Bolton’s film shows sections of the opera plus commentary from performers, musicians, and several Indigenous speakers, including Derickson Armstrong and her student, heritage researcher Jordan Coble. They both offer deep insights into the Syilx Spirit of the lake.
Coble declares that unlike what was presented in Pentland’s opera, his people never fed pigs and hens to the Spirit to prevent him from wreaking havoc. This is something that they would never consider doing. And The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ sets the record straight after more than a century of tourism marketing falsely claiming that such a creature might exist.
Meanwhile, Derickson Armstrong tells Pancouver that her goal has always been to teach the truth about her ancestors and her people. She does this as a Syilx language educator, as well as through her singing and artistry.
“I’m the first one that ever went to the classroom to teach about us in our community—and the truth of who we really are,” she says.
One of those truths is that before her people were placed on reserves, the Syilx people’s traditional territory extended into Washington state and included Vernon, Douglas Lake, and the Arrow Lakes region in B.C.
“My ancestors travelled back and forth within that territory,” she says.
Derickson Armstrong hopes that anyonne who see her and Pawsey in The Lake / nx̌aʔx̌aʔitkʷ will take away an important lesson.
“People can collaborate and work together even though you have different backgrounds, different cultures, and different language,” the elder emphasizes.