Sila by Chantal Bilodeau

This post was developed and authored by Alexander Schlutz, Ph.D.

Core text

Bilodeau, Chantal. Sila. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2015.

Summary

Sila (breath in Inuktitut), a play set in the Canadian arctic/Nunavut, depicts the complex relationships between Inuit activists, Canadian scientists, government coast guard officials, and a polar bear mother and daughter struggling for survival. Among other things, the play provides an opportunity to practice communal acts of mourning for the many personal, cultural, and environmental losses that have already become routine in our climactic “new normal.” Sila forms part of Bilodeau’s larger, ongoing project The Arctic Cycle, which aims to produce plays situated in each of the countries in the arctic circle.

Teaching Resources

  • The webpages of the indigenous movement Idle No More offer a wealth of resources on First Nations environmental activism in Canada.
  • “Tornarssuk. Ursus Maritimus.” In: Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams. New York: Vintage, 1986, 76-118 (chapter three). Lopez’ beautiful and accessible prose provides a great place to start for a deeper understanding of polar bears, their place in Arctic ecology and their importance for indigenous culture. (http://www.barrylopez.com)
  • “Vanishing Language, Vanishing Lands.” In:  Robinson, Mary (with Caitríona Palmer). Climate Justice. Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018, 45-56. While this chapter focuses on the Alaskan Arctic and the work of the Yupik scientist Patricia Cochran, the issues are of course very similar to those in the Canadian Arctic, and the discussion in the context of Climate Justice more broadly will make this a good complement to Bilodeau’s play.
  • The music of the experimental Inuit vocalist and artist Tanya Tagaq is the suggested soundtrack for Sila. Her powerful work and activism stands in dialog with and opens out the play in many important ways.
  • Potenza, Alessandra. “Here’s What Vanishing Sea Ice in the Arctic Means for You.” The Verge. May 10, 2018.
  • Jennifer Francis is one of the world’s leading scientists on Arctic sea ice loss and its connections to climate change and the planet’s climate system. Her scientific papers and her more popular publications are accessible via her website. For a class that can include “harder” scientific discussion of the issues at stake, this will be a good resource.

Study Questions for Sila, Act I

1) The two opening scenes of Sila, prologue and scene 1, create an introduction to the play as a whole. How do these two scenes work together to frame the play for the audience and to present central topics and issues that will inform the action going forward? (Even if you have only read act I at this point, you will have enough information to think about the connections to the opening scenes for your response.) To get a better sense of the soundtrack Chantal Bilodeau suggests for the prologue, listen to the YouTube video of Tanya Tagaq’s “Force” you’ll find in the “Sila & Arctic” folder under Course Weblinks. You’ll find a link to a gallery of Inuit sculpture there as well.

2) “Somebody’s gonna drill, Jean,” Thomas tells Jean in scene 2. What project is Thomas working on, and why does he need the help of Jean and Leanna to accomplish it? How do Jean and Leanna react to Thomas’ requests for help? You can focus on scenes 2 and 4 in your response, but later discussions between these characters in the act will help to answer these questions as well.

3) Sila features not only human, but animal characters as well. What role does the story of Mama and Daughter, the polar bear and her cub, play in act I? How in particular does the polar bears’ story relate to that of Leanna and Veronica?

4) Unlike her mother Leanna, Veronica is not directly involved in the international political conflicts about the Arctic. How does she work to support her community instead? Take a look at Veronica’s discussions with both Leanna and Jean and her spoken word poetry to see what positions she articulates .

Essay Questions for Sila

1) In the introduction to Chantal Bilodeau’s play Sila Megan Sandberg-Zakian, the director of the play’s world premiere, writes that during the development of the production, “a series of world-class scientific advisers” told them that the two most important things they needed to communicate to the audience were: “(1) We can’t get back what we’ve lost. It’s gone. (2) We must adapt to the unavoidable results of climate change” (i). How does Bilodeau’s play help to both communicate and to truly understand the meaning of these two points? Discuss how the various elements, characters, and story-lines of the play work together to both make us see what climate change concretely means for the community and eco-system of the Arctic, and how the play helps us to come to terms with the painful feeling of inevitable loss, while also motivating us to come together to protect the global environment and to help the global community adapt as best we can?

2) Sila is an Inuit word, and Intuit culture and experience is very important to Bilodeau’s play. Towards the end of the first act, Veronica tells Jean, the arctic scientist, that he cannot expect to work in Nunavut (the Arctic) without proper pitsiaqattautiniq (respect) for the Inuit. How does Bilodeau’s play work to show us the importance of and the respect due to the knowledge and experience of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples? Based on the evidence of the play, what might an effective collaboration of the Inuit and Western scientists look like, and how can the perspective of Inuit culture, both traditional and contemporary, be of help in the effort to combat climate change and to help us adapt to its unavoidable impacts?

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