Dr. Laura Cranmer reawakens Indigenous languages through powerful play

10 actors raise their hands in gratitude on a stage.

Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital tells the story of three young girls: Dorothy Myth representing Kwak’wala, Esther Williams representing Hul’q’umin’um’ and Mary Robins representing Nuu-chah-nulth. Michael Duddy Photo

February 8, 2024 - 3:45pm

The VIU Honorary Research Associate’s play urges reflection on Canada’s collective history and colonial impacts.

Warning: Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital: Reawakening Hul’q’umin’um’, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwak’wala Languages contains scenes, imagery and language that can be intense and activating. Attendees are encouraged to do what is best for their mental health, including leaving the theatre to decompress or not attending if they have concerns about their well-being. Mental health support workers will be available for Survivors and audience members.

Ḵ̓ix̱t̕łala, Dr. Laura Cranmer wrote Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital: Reawakening Hul’q’umin’um’, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwak’wala Languages to create space to artistically explore a foundational experience from her childhood.

Cranmer, of ʼNa̱mǥis and Haida descent, is a Vancouver Island University (VIU) Honorary Research Associate and retired VIU Professor for Indigenous/Xwulmuxw Studies. She is a residential school Survivor who also spent three years in the Nanaimo Indian Hospital as a child. She said writing the script allowed her to give form to energies, voices and perspectives she internalized and meaning to the isolation she felt as a child.

“It is possible to rewrite the colonial script that I’ve been handed and infuse that script with life and light and love and a sense of buoyancy that helps to create the space for all the joy and all of the pain,” said Cranmer. “Combining my creative writing with my therapy grew my ability to challenge myself to push myself past the limitations placed on me by the colonial moment, the colonial era, that would have us continue living in oppressive conditions, that would have us continue to be blind to the real source of our oppression.”

She began writing the script 19 years ago. After retiring from VIU and during the COVID-19 pandemic, she resumed her work on the play and brought it to a community-based writing circle led by Frank Moher, the Founding Director of Western Edge Theatre. The script’s first staged reading was held on February 14, 2022, as part of Western Edge Theatre’s New Waves Festival. This script became Cranmer’s play Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital: Reawakening Hul’q’umin’um’, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwak’wala Languages.

The play tells the story of three young girls: Dorothy Myth representing Kwak’wala, Esther Williams representing Hul’q’umin’um’ and Mary Robins representing Nuu-chah-nulth languages. The girls have a growing friendship in Ward B and delight in comparing their languages. This is contrasted by sinister medical undercurrents that are revealed through the dialogue and actions between medical staff. 

“Our family systems were fragmented, broken up by years of enforced isolation under the guise of disease,” said Cranmer. “If artistic expression really is a mirror to society, then what sorts of emotions might any audience member feel witnessing not only the antics and humour in the growing friendship between the little girls in Ward B but also the medical experiments on the young patients?”

Cranmer said the era of Truth and Reconciliation continually reminds people about the ongoing impact on Indigenous people brought on by colonization. The playwriting genre can be used as a vehicle to transport historical facts dressed up as fiction into contemporary times. 

“This play reminds us of the historical fact of our collective incarceration, of our collective grief and our collective losses in the disruption of intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledge such as our rites of passage, our languages and our ability to form familial bonds and to repair those familial bonds once broken.”

Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital is an Indigenous-led education and applied theatre project. It is an educational experience and language learning project, not a theatrical experience for entertainment. The central question is how an applied theatre project told through the three Indigenous languages advances language reawakening for actors, audience members and researchers. A pivotal piece of the project is language re-awakening and exposure. The actors speak in Hul’q’umin’um’, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwak’wala.

Cranmer also wants to educate people about Indian hospitals in Canada, especially the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, which operated from 1946 to 1967 and was located across the street from what is now Vancouver Island University.

The play became part of an Indigenous-led research project in collaboration with Dr. Amanda Wager, VIU’s Canada Research Chair in Community-Engaged Research. Wager and Cranmer received an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to support the continued applied theatre language reawakening work of the project. 

Each performance will include a post-show talk which will be transcribed for research and educational purposes. Free tickets are available for Survivors, local and surrounding First Nations, and patrons who need this gift. Please use the code: VIPGuest online or call the ticket office to speak with someone directly. Upcoming performances include:

  • Sid Williams Theatre, Courtney, on February 16. Performances at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets are $35 for adults and $15 for seniors and youth (ages 18 and under). Call the ticket office at 250.338.2430 or order tickets online.
  • Tidemark Theatre, Campbell River, on March 1. Performances at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets are $30 for adults and $15 for youth and students. Call the ticket office at 250.287.7465 or order tickets online.
  • VIU’s Malaspina Theatre, Nanaimo campus (Building 310), on March 28. Performances at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets are free but must be reserved online.

For more information about the project, please contact Ann Woodward, arc: Art, Research and Community Centre Coordinator, at Ann.Woodward@viu.ca. Learn more about Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital by watching these short videos


Media Contact:

Rachel Stern, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

C: 250.618.0373 l E: Rachel.Stern@viu.ca | X: @VIUNews



Daisy Elliott, an Indian Residential School Survivors Society Crisis Team Lead and VIU Indigenous/Xwulmuxw Studies alum, and Ida Thompson walk through some mental health advice about preparing to come see Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital:

Thank you from Ḵ̓ix̱t̕łala, Dr. Laura Cranmer:

“I would like to acknowledge and express my gratitude to all my former instructors in my Bachelor of Arts in English at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University). In particular, Liza Potvin, Dawn Thompson, Elizabeth Grove-White, John LePage, Bill Juby, Marshall Soules, Tim Brownlow, Frank Moher (Creative Writing and Journalism) and Kathryn Barnwell (Studies in Women and Gender) were all inspirational by modelling their passion for their subjects and instrumental in drawing out the best in their students. The script not only is a culmination of my early lived experience but also a culmination of the foundational skills developed in my BA program.”


Tags: Indigenous | Indigenous Studies | Research | Announcements

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