Heidegger and a Colonial, Capitalist Bureaucracy: A Review

Theatre Projects Manitoba’s new play, Reservations, is a provocative dialogue directed by Steven Ratzlaff about the skewed manner in which some white Canadians perceive indigenous affairs. While the content of the play was intriguing, important and timely, I still found my eyelids heavy as I sat in the back of the Rachel Browne Theatre.

The show, which starred only Ratzlaff, Tracey Nepinak and Sarah Constible, was split into two separate stories. The first show, Pete’s Reserve, depicted the conflict between a white Mennonite father (Ratzlaff) and his whiny daughter (Constible) as she opposed his decision to give his land, worth $3 million, back to the Siksika First Nation. Constible’s character, Anna, was upset as she had been expecting to inherit the estate as her own one day.

The story was unconvincing. The idea that a man could have a heart attack followed by an epiphany that his $3 million estate truly belonged to a neighbouring First Nation was hard to believe. The message was clear: the roles were suddenly reversed, and low and behold, the white woman did not appreciate having her rights to her family’s land revoked against her will. But the hour-long, back-and-forth dialogue had my eyes falling shut, and it wasn’t just because of my no-sleep, college lifestyle.

The father, Mike, was dating an indigenous woman, Esther (Nepinak), but his relationship with Esther had nothing to do with his decision to donate his estate to the Siksika First Nation. While I reminded myself that each decision as a playwright must be intentional, I struggled to understand why Esther was so removed from the estate equation, yet so potentially influential to Mike’s stance on indigenous reconciliation.

Constible was unconvincing in the first act as Anna, the young, struggling Toronto actor, but she quickly redeemed herself in the second act as Jenny, the middle-aged foster mother. In fact, many things improved in the second act, and I started to perk up rather than fall asleep.

In the second act, Standing Reserve, a philosophy professor (Ratzlaff) and his wife (Constible) battle with Child and Family Services (CFS) to keep their foster son from visiting his extended family on the reserve he was from.

Again, how the tables had turned. The white woman was upset that her children (who were not even truly her children) were being taken from her home, and learning a culture that wasn’t hers.

The story was fascinating and heartbreaking. At first, I thought how strange it was that there was no child cast in the show. But in retrospect, the absence of the child in the play perfectly demonstrated the way children in care are moved around from home to home without a voice in the matter. The story became even more interesting when the CFS agent (Nepinak) turned out to be the professor’s former student. Then they started talking philosophy.

For someone without any basic understanding of Martin Heidegger’s theories on being and existence, the last act of Ratzlaff’s show is pointless and long. I imagine even someone with experience in philosophy would find the scene difficult to grasp.

But based on my own interpretation and research, the idea behind the heavy Heidegger references in Reservations, is this: Heidegger, one of the most important and recognized philosophers of the 20th century, proposed in his theories exactly what indigenous people have understood forever. That is that a person’s first perception of an object is selfishly based on how that person can use the object, not on the object as an entity of its own. Nepinak’s character explains in a lecture-like final scene that this human tendency, which can equally be applied to interpersonal relations, is what causes a “brutal dominion of earth and many of her people,” and a “colonial, capitalist bureaucracy.”

Indigenous spirituality values a distinct respect for every creature on earth, which reflects the importance of Heidegger’s theory of the system in which we perceive objects and other people. To read more about indigenous spirituality, read the link below from the Canadian Assembly of First Nations.

Honouring Mother Earth– AFN

The parallels between Heidegger’s philosophical views and indigenous spirituality and culture in Reservations were striking and got me thinking. However, Ratzlaff’s intelligent ideas would have been better presented through a different medium. The back-and-forth banter between three characters just wasn’t as entertaining or captivating as the subject matter had the potential to be. And that’s a shame.


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