Art as Tool to Educate and Heal

One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance.

By Steven Ross Smith

“I kicked Robert Duvall in the shin,” says Kennetch Charlette, recalling his most memorable acting experience. Charlette and Duvall were filming a scene in “The Scarlet Letter” in 1996 in Nova Scotia.

But back in the early '80s, Charlette – from Sandy Bay, Saskatchewan and a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation – was working for the CNR in Winnipeg. In 1985 he heard about auditions for the National Film Board series “Daughters of Our Country”, and though a complete novice, he talked his way into an audition. He won a role in one episode, “The Wake”, and then was hired for the next film. Things were looking good.

So he left his union railway job and set off for Toronto to enroll. in the Native Theatre School. As well he went to every theatre training session he could find, improving his knowledge of acting, singing, dancing and technical operations.

Kennetch also became involved with the Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts, Native Earth Performing Arts (the first professional Native theatre company in Canada) and the Royal Conservatory, where he studied speech and drama.

Charlette spent twelve years in Toronto working steadily in film, theatre and television, counting among his achievements a role in the play “Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing” by Tomson Highway and being nominated for two Dora Mavor Moore acting awards.

But the words of an Elder kept echoing in Kennetch's mind: “Success is measured by how much you can help your people.”

In 1998, while in Saskatchewan filming ''Big Bear”, Kennetch talked with actors Gordon Tootoosis and Tantoo Cardinal about the lack of training opportunities for aboriginal youth. An idea began to form.

Soon Charlette met Donna Heimbecker, who had management and administrative skills, and enthusiasm. Teaming up with Heimbecker, (now the Theatre Company's General Manager), and a founding board of directors –Tootoosis, Cardinal and spiritual advisor Dave Pratt – Charlette initiated the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company.

Located in the heart of Saskatoon’s inner city, SNTC presents professional theatre productions originated by SNTC or by other companies. It also provides mentorship and training opportunities for aboriginal youth, through the Circle of Voices and the Youth Ensemble programs, in all aspects of theatre production and self-expression. SNTC tours its shows to communities throughout Saskatchewan and beyond.

Kennetch's role as Artistic and Technical Director at SNTC is multi-faceted and demanding. His dedication is fed by his own journey – from a childhood in foster homes to a position of accomplishment where his generous vision can benefit young aboriginals.

Charlette says. “The artist must use his or her art as a tool to educate and heal.” Kennetch Charlette wants to “partner and cooperate with Natives and non-Natives to build Saskatchewan as a community that works together.” Such vision can lead to great things.

Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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