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‘Three Pines,’ Based on Louise Penny Books, Tackles Indigenous Suffering

Murder is as ubiquitous in “Three Pines,” the noirish Amazon series from the creators of “The Crown,” as the bone-chilling Canadian weather. But as the bodies pile up in a claustrophobic Quebec village, one discovery shakes the fictional community to its core: the graves of three dead Indigenous children, surreptitiously concealed in the basement of a former Victorian residential school.

The discovery by Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the morally unimpeachable detective at the center of the show, is notable because the scene is absent from the Louise Penny books that inspired the series. The scene also stands out for another reason: It was written a year before Indigenous leaders reported that ground-penetrating radar in 2021 had uncovered what appeared to be the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children near a residential school in British Columbia, an announcement that convulsed Canada.

The creators of “Three Pines,” which debuted in early December, have chosen to take the beloved character of Gamache, who operates as Canada’s Hercule Poirot in solving all manner of mysteries in Penny’s 18 books, and set him to the task of reckoning with a shameful chapter in Canadian history.

From the 1880s through 1990, at least 150,000 ​Indigenous children were forcibly sent to residential schools, established by the government and run largely by the Roman Catholic Church, where they were forbidden to speak their languages and faced sexual and physical abuse.

Penny, the Canadian author who is also executive producer on the series, said that seeing art inadvertently imitate life in such a visceral and horrific way had shocked many of the show’s creators. “When the headlines hit, we were appalled by the discovery, and we realized that this was no longer fiction — it was an ‘Oh My God’ moment,” she recalled.

Louise Penny, the detective novelist, at her home in Knowlton, a small village south of Montreal. Credit…Renaud Philippe for The New York Times

As Canada grapples with dark chapters from its colonial past, Indigenous cultural observers said the series shines a rare global spotlight on the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples there, a reality long underplayed, obfuscated or ignored in Canadian popular culture.

The show also arrives as Canada, a country that prides itself on cultural diversity, has been buffeted by debates over cultural appropriation and who has the right to depict minorities in film, television and theater. That question was called into sharp relief a few years ago when the director Robert Lepage drew criticism for failing to cast First Nations people from Canada in “Kanata,” a play chronicling their historic suffering.

As in the United States, where television series like “Rutherford Falls,” “Dark Winds,” and FX’s “Reservoir Dogs” have explored Native American themes, Canada has been exploring long-buried Indigenous narratives. A psychological television drama, “Bones of Crows,” about a residential school survivor, is set to premiere next year on the CBC, the national broadcaster, and there have been musical productions, television series and films that grapple with Indigenous subjects.

But Jesse Wente, a writer who is the first Indigenous chairman of Canada Council for the Arts, the national arts funding body, said there has yet to be a mainstream Canadian show with an Indigenous cast and crew and a budget on the scale of Three Pines. He viewed the omission as a legacy of colonialism that still infects Canadian culture and ignores Indigenous voices in the country’s storytelling.

“We could’ve been making shows like Three Pines in Canada for more than a generation but we just haven’t,” he said.

“Three Pines” turns cultural appropriation on its head, reimagining a white-majority Quebec region as a vessel of Indigenous suffering and subjugation but also empowerment. And it recasts several of Penny’s characters: Isabelle Lacoste is not a white Quebecois policewoman but rather a strong-minded Indigenous single mother, while Bea Mayer, who runs a meditation center, is depicted as a formidable motorcycle-riding Indigenous gallery owner, played with raw intensity by the Indigenous actress Tantoo Cardinal.

Also forming an integral part of the series is Gamache’s investigation into the disappearance and murder of a Mohawk girl, Blue Two-Rivers, which is falsely pinned on a young First Nations man in an elaborate police frame-up. The disappearance and murder of Indigenous girls and women is so endemic in Canada that it spawned a national inquiry.

Penny has a cult following, including ardent pilgrims who travel to Quebec to retrace Gamache’s steps; messing with the blueprint of the novels was not without risk. “Three Pines lacks the warmth and welcoming I wrap myself in,” bemoaned one disappointed reader on Penny’s Facebook page.Others lamented that the humor and joy of the books is absent in an unrelentingly dark series.

And while many of the novels’ characters remain, among them the misanthropic poet with a swearing pet duck, Penny herself said she was disappointed that the village of Three Pines, “a central character in the books,” was a sideshow in the series. Nevertheless, she said story lines that involved First Nations people in Canada had imbued the novels with new meaning.

The Indigenous content was the brainchild of British screenwriter Emilia di Girolamo, the series’s head writer and executive producer. Di Girolamo said that her decision to reimagine Penny’s novels through a different lens had been solidified during a research trip to Quebec for the series in 2019, when she read headlines about murdered Indigenous girls.

She also drew inspiration from a plotline in one of Penny’s novels detailing a young Cree man who goes missing.

“Louise Penny’s books are all about the dark and the light, and the mistreatment of Indigenous people is the dark in Canada at the moment,” she said.

Di Girolamo said the creative team worked hard to avoid “white saviorism” and brought in the 44-year-old director Tracey Deer, who is Indigenous and created the acclaimed comedy-drama series “Mohawk Girls,” to direct episodes dealing with residential schools. It also hired several First Nations people in Canada for main roles and as consultants.

Tracey Deer, who directed episodes of “Three Pines” and is Indigenous, said that she strove to ensure that the series took care to accurately portray Indigenous people and their culture.Credit…Guoman Liao for The New York Times

Deer said that the strong, three-dimensional Indigenous characters had drawn her to the project. “As a young girl, I never saw someone like me on the big or little screen,” she said. “All I ever saw were Indians with feathers living 400 years ago or portrayed as someone with a substance abuse problem who gets killed.”

Nevertheless, she said avoiding “white saviorism” represented an extraordinary challenge since the series’s primary hero and moral center, Gamache, is a middle-aged white male, portrayed with searing vulnerability by the British actor Alfred Molina. To guard against old and familiar colonial conventions, she said she had sought to develop strong Indigenous characters who are not victims and retain the power to shape their own identities.

“In the books we have the great Gamache, and he is white and is the lead detective and has all the power,” she said. “The last thing I wanted was another show that fetishizes Indigenous suffering and left us in a place of victimhood.”

Deer said she had worked to depict Indigenous culture with authenticity. For example in one episode, after the remains of children are discovered, mourners are smudged with sage, to honor the dead. The original script featured a more Eurocentric candlelit vigil.

Nevertheless, aspects of the plot upset some Indigenous cast members, in particular a scene in which Blue Two-Rivers’s mother, despairing over the failure to find her daughter, hurls herself off the roof of a police station in Montreal.

Tailfeathers, right, who is Indigenous, said she initially had reservations about playing a detective because of how Canadian police have treated Indigenous people in the past.Credit…Amazon Studios

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta, who plays the police officer Isabelle Lacoste, lamented that there had been no Indigenous people in the series’s writing room, and she did not think the scene rang true. While suicide exists in some Indigenous communities, Tailfeathers said it didn’t seem realistic to present the mother as so desperate she would take her own life. She said she pleaded with the show’s producers to change that part of the script.

“When I see Indigenous women who have lost loved ones, they often fight back, and it wasn’t an accurate image of the women I know,” she explained.

Di Girolamo responded that the suicide scene underscored Gamache’s fallibility. “Gamache totally fails to save Blue,” she said. “It was a powerful moment to show what police are doing to Indigenous people and their failure to help.”

Tailfeathers said that she was initially conflicted about playing a police officer, since police in Canada have been criticized as being abusive and violent toward Indigenous people; in the past, for example, officers removed Indigenous children from their homes and delivered them to the residential schools.

But the opportunity to portray a powerful Indigenous role model swayed her. “I was drawn by Lacoste’s complexity, her tenacity and her strength,” she said.

Still, she said the series’s raw depiction of real life traumas had sometimes triggered her, since her own maternal grandparents had been sent to residential schools. To help the cast deal with grief or trauma, there was an Indigenous therapist on set.

Despite its unflinching portrayal of Canadian law enforcement, “Three Pines” has won praise from some Québécois police officers, who have commended its stark realism.

Marcel Savard, a former deputy chief and 40-year veteran of the Sûreté du Québec, Quebec’s provincial police force, for which Gamache works in the books, said he appreciated the inspector’s relentlessness and humanity.

“Gamache may run out of leads or hit a wall, but he never abandons the Indigenous victims,” he said. “He made me feel proud.”

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