When people ask me where I got my last name – “Israël” – I tell them I’m Jewish. I never go without emphasizing the ish, and from time to time I’ll prefix it with “half-” for good measure. My more devout Jewish relatives, who shunned my gentile mother years ago, would scoff despite the caveats. I’ve had no bat mitzvah, I’ve never gone to Hebrew school, heck, I’ve never even stepped into a synagogue.
But this year, perhaps as a result of all the Canada 150 exposure, I am coming to terms with dropping the caveats. My lightbulb moment came from what may seem like an unlikely source: a brief conversation with Indigenous actor and activist Shiloh Nyce. Our shared work on The Unsilent Project, a new experimental piece for orchestra and spoken word, has helped me find understanding and peace around my own belonging.
I work behind the scenes with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada (NYO Canada). As a Canada 150 Signature Project, NYO Canada is celebrating a banner year with a massive coast-to-coast-to-coast tour and a special partnership with Signal Theatre, a theatre company whose work reflects and privileges Indigenous knowledges. Collaborative explorations between the orchestra and Signal Theatre led us toward the work of late poet Zaccheus Jackson.
Zaccheus was a powerful Blackfoot Pikani poet who grappled all his life with the concept of belonging, identity, and roots. He was born on September 9, 1977 in Edmonton, Alberta to a young single mother from the Blackfoot Pikani Nation. From the age of five months, he was raised in the northern region of Kitimat, BC by adoptive parents who immersed him in a home full of books, First Nations traditions, and oral storytelling. His later struggles with drug addiction led him to the street, to prison, and to his eventual redemption through poetry. Until his untimely death, he performed his powerful works to increasing acclaim in slam poetry competitions across Canada and the U.S. Zaccheus lost his life after being struck by a train in western Toronto in August 2014 while in the midst of a nine-week solo tour across Canada. He was 36 years old and just barely tapping into his full potential as one of Canada’s top slam poets and creative language arts educators.
In his wake, Zaccheus’s family, friends, and fan community have worked to maintain his legacy as a visionary Indigenous voice. This was the starting point of The Unsilent Project, a collaboration between the National Youth Orchestra, Signal Theatre, and Zaccheus’s family and friends to bring his struggles with identity and belonging to light through art, creation, collaboration, and performance. The resulting work, The Unsilent Project, will bring together over a hundred emerging musicians and spoken word artists from different disciplines and different parts of the country to perform on Canada’s finest stages this summer. Its timely message of unity, individuality, and reconciliation is poised to reach audiences in the thousands.
The first workshop of The Unsilent Project brought together a dozen classical musicians, spoken word artists, and theatre leaders. It was our first meeting with members of Zaccheus’s family. It was in the context this workshop, during an innocuous coffee break, that Zaccheus’s sister Shiloh and I got to talking about community, shared tragedy, and belonging.
Shiloh steered my thinking around identity in a completely new direction. Like me, Shiloh has a lot of identities: she is an actor, a model, an activist, Indigenous Canadian, American. She radiates warmth, energy, and powerful ideas. We talked about the collective shared pain that results from a community’s past suffering. Shiloh’s Indigenous community and the Jewish community have this indescribable injustice and pain in common. Even if we weren’t physically present, the residual pain that stems from tragedy is passed down from generation to generation. It lies just beneath the surface of who you are. Like any pain, it can only be alleviated by acknowledging the truth and taking tangible steps toward healing. Shiloh put it simply: healing cannot come until pain is acknowledged. The Unsilent Project is one way for us all to explore, acknowledge, and own the pain that still lingers from the darker areas of Canada’s history. NYO Canada and Signal Theatre will share its message with thousands of Canadians, many of them experiencing their own identity struggles and epiphanies, in July and August 2017.