The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe Activism in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

Although there is no character in this play that is depicted as engaging in explicit political activism on behalf of Indigenous peoples, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe both reflected activist efforts at the time, and helped inspire such efforts going forward. The activist spirit is particularly manifest through the words and actions of Jaimie Paul. Many Indigenous people moved away from the scarce opportunities offered them in their reservations and into the cities following World War II. Many lived in makeshift squatting communities in these cities. Racism meant that Indigenous peoples struggled to find work, housing, or educational opportunity. Activism emerged in response to these realities. Activists worked to secure social services from a number of different branches of the government in order to assist with this transition into city life. Soon, the scope of activism widened to addressing colonization and marginalization. Ryga's play is part of this trend, as it encouraged white people to face up to their own role in the marginalization of Indigenous peoples.

Many of Jaimie's concerns mimic those of activists of the time. Jaimie was concerned with his own empowerment as well as that of the community. He understood that he lived within a structure that defined him ("Teach me who I really am! You've taken that away! Give me back the real me so I can live like a man!"), but demanded the opportunity to be self-sufficient within this definition (111). Jaimie placed an emphasis on self-determination, which he branded as the difference between being a child and being a "man." This is the impetus of his conflict with Mr. Homer, whom he sees as excessively infantilizing the community he pretends to help: "He's got no kids... Guys like them get mean when they got no kids... We're his kids an' he means to keep it that way!" (97). Mr. Homer benefits from his relationship with Indigenous peoples because it affects his status and self-perception. But he is not interested in the true social and political empowerment of these people, something Jaimie sees in him and makes clear when he is able to easily provoke Mr. Homer into violence and eventually into calling the police on them.

Another instance in which Jaimie engages in protest has to do with the beer parlor that denies his friend Steve entry. When Jaimie finds out that his friend wasn't allowed into the establishment, he decided to return with that friend and another man in tow. He tells Rita that no one will "throw me or the boys out of that beer parlour or he's gonna get this!" (89). He holds up a fist. The stage direction calls this gesture "both poignant and futile" (89). Rita laughs at him and replies: "If they want to throw you out, they'll throw you out" (89). There is a sense that even though resistance might be futile, it is worthwhile, because "God helps them who help themselves" (89). This sentiment seems central to Jaimie's political message in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Jaimie relentlessly fights against those trying to suppress his voice. He is angry, and he tries his hardest to empower himself. One of the tragedies of Ryga's play is that these efforts eventually cost him his life.