Article by Frann Harris

HEN THE OPENING NIGHT OF LOUIS RIEL loomed on Gillian Gallow’s calendar, she considered how the wardrobe team could complete the costumes in time. The costume designer for the Canadian Opera Company’s new production realized that, in particular, embroidering the costumes would be extremely time-consuming. She also wanted the embroidery to look authentic, to create a strong visual link for the audience between the embroidered clothes of the actors on stage and those of the Métis on the Prairies in 1885.

If the Métis-inspired embroidery for the opera looks traditional to the untrained eye, Gallow’s approach to creating it in good time was anything but. Rather than being done by hand, it was done on a computer and an embroidery machine.

Sitting in a quiet room at the COC, while the rain pelted the window, Gallow recounted how she researched the elaborate embroidery designs. She also learned from Métis cast members that embroidery was very important to their ancestors because it allowed them to adorn their clothes with personal statements and symbols.

Before European contact, embroidery designs were made of softened and dyed porcupine quills. After European contact, the quills were replaced by thread, and the straight-lined geometric designs gave way to curvy human and animal figures and floral designs.

Armed with this information and her own extensive research, Gallow drew floral designs on her computer and chose the colours she wanted to replicate for authenticity. Then she sent her designs to embroidery artist Steven VanderSchee, who selected the closest-coloured threads he could find and digitized the designs on his machine, a computer programmed to reproduce her one-dimensional designs in embroidery.

For the costumes themselves, Gallow met with members of the Métis community to discuss the importance of achieving authenticity and remaining mindful of the importance of portraying the Métis in an “honest and dignified manner.” She and her team used natural fibres to replicate the original Métis clothes as much as possible. The bright lighting for the set of the opera was an important consideration in her work because natural fibres react more predictably and consistently in bright light than synthetic fibres do. Her main objective was to create costumes that looked authentic and would transport the audience back to the year 1885, when the North West Rebellion took place in what is now Saskatchewan, but was then known as the North West. How did Gallow make the new costumes look as used as the clothes that were worn 132 years ago?

Enter the Breakdown Artist, Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston who, with the help of sanding equipment, filed down actors’ shirt cuffs, jacket elbows, and the knees of their pants to create a used look and impart “land colours” reminiscent of the Prairies. She also moved a button or two to give a rumpled aspect to the costumes that, in real life, may have been worn for years by a body that had changed girth.

Gallow and her department wanted to show the extreme “disconnect” between the east and west of our country at the time of the Rebellion. It was crucial to stage the tone deafness of Ottawa because it was the major cause of frustration among the Métis: although they were officially promised tracts of Prairie land, the federal government made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to lay claim to the Prairie parcels. The matter was not addressed until 2013, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government had failed to follow through on its original promise to the Métis people.

The disconnect was to prove fatal: by hook and by crook, Prime Minister Macdonald was determined to see the CPR railway built to the west coast, in order to settle the Prairies with Europeans. His plan was at complete odds with the inhabitants of the Prairies, particularly the Métis—the mixed Indigenous-European offspring of the voyageurs—who felt entitled to occupy the same land they had inhabited since the 1700s and the early days of fur-trading with the North West Company. Riel’s actions, which included the execution of a white man in Manitoba, and Macdonald’s determination to punish Riel and his followers, left little room for negotiation.

The fatal conflict between these different views and values presented the COC costume department with an opportunity and a challenge to portray the irreconcilable differences.

The disconnect between east and west is clearly distinguished in the costumes for the members of the eastern establishment and the western rebels, and Gallow’s job was made much easier by the existence of period photos. She and her team found many early black-and-whites that provide “honest portrayals” in which the subjects were not “glamourized” as they might be today. “I appreciate that kind of honesty,” she said, adding that conveying an honest portrayal of the conflict was as important as portraying the Métis people as honourable.

Accordingly, Riel—and the men playing the members of his short-lived Provisional Government of Saskatchewan—wear period-based, sombre European clothes on stage, which speak to the European half of their heritage, while their moccasins testify to their indigenous half and their deep roots in the Prairies.

Gabriel Dumont, Riel’s right-hand man and a Métis leader, wears a buckskin jacket made from scratch by Gallow’s team, along with his big hat. (Interestingly, Dumont escaped punishment by fleeing to the United States to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the year after the defeat of the rebels by the militia from Ontario and the North West Mounted Police.) Another ally of Riel, Chief Poundmaker, is dressed for the play according to historic photos—in a reproduction wig, a vest speckled with metal studs, and a blanket over his arm. By contrast, Gallow dresses the soldiers—who rode the new rails from Ontario to the Prairies—in prim, period-based military uniforms. Prime Minister Macdonald is easy to spot on stage in his bright red-checked suit, while another Father of Confederation, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, sports a similar urban-style suit in blue. (Historic note: Cartier had participated in the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 and had led the Parti bleu.) Donald Smith wears a white frock coat decorated with HBC stripes, which is fitting when you know that he was the nephew of a fur trader and Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company before he pounded the Last Spike into the British Columbia ground in November, 1885, six months after the North West Rebellion.

The Rebellion was short-lived and Louis Riel was tried and hanged for high treason. He was a man with many sides—a poet and religious man as much as a freedom fighter for his people. The historic battle he waged was just as complex— and still is.

Gallow hopes her costumes and the new COC production of Louis Riel will make people think about our history and what it took. “We want to help people reconsider their understanding of Canadian history,” she said, before running off to a costume fitting.

Frann Harris is a freelance writer as well as Associate and Managing Editor of Ornamentum.

All images
Preliminary costume sketches
from Louis Riel by costume
designer Gillian Gallow.