Production brings the “remarkable” Pegahmagabow to life

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During World War I, Ojibwa sniper and scout Francis Pegahmagabow of Parry Sound killed 378 German soldiers and captured 300 more. For his efforts, he was awarded a Military Medal (with two bars) for bravery, the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, making him one of the most decorated Aboriginal soldiers. of Canadian history.

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Back home, “Peggy” was elected chief of the Wasauking First Nation in 1921, but resigned four years later due to constant interference by Indian Affairs agent John Daly on his reserve.

Eight years later, he became a band councilor and was then re-elected chief in 1942. He then headed the Native Indian Government, one of the first First Nations organizations, for two terms.

The riveting life of the soldier-turned-politician-turned-activist is the subject of a new stage production called “Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow,” which will be performed at the Isabel Bader Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday as part of its Festival of human rights arts.

“Sounding Thunder” was written by Kingston author and poet Armand Garnet Ruffo, also of Ojibwe ancestry.

“I think that’s one of the fundamentals and exciting things about this production is that it shines a light on this remarkable person, and I hope other Canadians will get to know him and appreciate his achievements,” Ruffo said.

Pegahmagabow was remarkable, Ruffo noted, in that he served and survived the duration of the war, even though he fought on the front lines. Not only that, but indigenous people weren’t even allowed to enlist in the first place, Ruffo said.

Aside from his wartime accomplishments, Pegahmagabow’s activism was even more difficult because “there were so many hurdles he had to overcome,” Ruffo noted. Although there are now active First Nations organizations, they were not even allowed to hire a lawyer to represent them.

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Ruffo was commissioned by the Parry Sound Festival of Sound in 2017 to write the libretto for “Sounding Thunder” in collaboration with composer Tim Corlis.

The production focuses on two characters: Pegahmagabow, of course, and a deer spirit, which “represents the spiritual awakening he has and the gifts he has received,” Ruffo said.

There’s also a narrator, Brian D. McInnes – a great-grandson of Pegahmagabow and the author of the book “Rolling Thunder” – to drive the story forward. Ruffo said that although the production is named after the book, it is only used as a rough guide for the three-act production.

After completing his first draft of his screenplay, Ruffo realized that he had left little room for Corlis’ compositions.

“Together we realized there was no room for the music to skyrocket,” Ruffo said. “So the challenge then was to condense the writing to fit the music.”

He cut the script almost in half, using narrative poetry “to condense a lot of the information and deliver it in a very palatable, interesting and dramatic way”, he said.

The final version debuted in late 2018 to strong reviews, Ruffo said, but had lain dormant since, in part due to the pandemic.

“We had time to lay it down and review it, which was nice,” he said, adding that he made a few changes but nothing substantial.

There are a few things different about this version compared to the one that debuted in 2018: the main cast (Keenan Keeshig and Jodi Baker Contin) are new, and it now features animation rather than stills to help to tell the story.

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In fact, Ruffo was in Parry Sound last week, attending rehearsals and offering commentary, and is looking forward to seeing how he will be received during his stops in Parry Sound, Ottawa, Kingston and, finally, Stratford.

“Like a book, you just send it out into the world and hope it finds a readership,” Ruffo noted, “and hopefully it finds an audience and gets picked up by other places.”

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What: “Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow” is part of the Isabel Human Rights Arts Festival.

When: Tuesday, August 2, 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Isabel Bader Center for the Performing Arts, 390 King St. W.

Cost: $40 for the general public.

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