By Scott Messenger / Photographs by Jessica Fern Facette
As kids funnel into the cafeteria of the Ben Calf Robe-St. Clare school, Scott Ward is uncharacteristically flustered, even if he doesn’t show it. He’s waiting calmly at one end of the boxy, beige room, repeatedly flipping and catching a cordless microphone with one hand, his dark, short hair gelled back, his blue shirt traditionally decorated with red and white ribbons dangling from the back and sleeves.
Ward is standing beside a row of chairs for volunteers he hopes to pull from his audience, the 40 or so aboriginal junior high students who attend this northeast Edmonton school for its focus on native spirituality and culture. But filling those seats won’t be easy. For one thing, the audience is rather small – which wouldn’t be so bad if Ward had the chance to handpick his subjects, like usual. No such luck. Of the group sitting cross-legged and antsy on the hardwood before him, only seven returned parent-signed permission slips letting them participate in today’s show. So he seats them and two reluctant teachers, then gets on with it. He introduces himself to the students and declares that he’s a hypnotist, adding, when their chatter diminishes slightly, “like Criss Angel,” a young American Goth-styled illusionist the kids might know from TV or YouTube.
At least one does. “He’s the antichrist!” a young girl shouts.
“Huh?” responds Ward. He quickly checks a look of shock and mild confusion, masking it with cool confidence. The show, of course, must go on.
While rough gigs are anomalies, it’s not unusual for Ward to walk into one with no idea of what to expect. Four days ago hewas in Winnipeg performing at an aboriginal health careers fair before a crowd of 70 that included government, industry and native rep-resentatives. There, after picking people who might respond best to a few suggestibility tricks (arms fall beneath imaginary weights, mouths salivate as hands squeeze juice from invisible lemons), he even managed to bend a couple of elders to his power of suggestion, convincing them they were late for line-cook jobs at McDonald’s.
But today at the school, success is sporadic. Ward gets most of the kids to kick off shoes teeming with unseen spiders; he gets one to forget her name. At the same time, though, one of the teachers refuses to impersonate Shania Twain, and a girl who’s proven rigidly immune to hypnotic suggestion joins the audience after a whispered word from Ward.
And still, the school show is actually the type he prefers. A teacher by training, Ward would probably still be one if he believed kids could rely on classroom curriculum alone to guide them past the pitfalls of youth – gangs, drugs, teen pregnancy, ennui – and into adulthood. Instead, he gave up the profession in 2006 for the long shot of a life on stage. Since then he’s travelled the continent, mostly via native reserves, conjuring up promising futures in young, subconscious minds. Luckily, it has proven to be an untapped entertainment market, one that he, as a 32-year-old aboriginal, has cornered.
And now, in the afternoon sunshine blanching the Ben Calf Robe cafeteria, Ward paces before his volunteers, their heads resting on neighbours’ shoulders, eyes closed. He’s turned serious.
“As a hypnotist,” he says, his cadence calming, “you can help people with their dreams and goals. I want you to know that any goal you have will come very easy to you, as you will work very hard to accomplish it.” He asks them to imagine a dream career. Hockey player. Nurse. Just finishing school. “Make it big and bright,” he commands. “Make it beautiful.”
On stage, a girl picks animatedly at her teeth – a future dentist, perhaps? But other than that, responses are subtle, like those of a boy at the end of the row, smiling, his hands twitching in a way that seems to betray consciousness. But maybe his current state of mind doesn’t matter. The important thing may simply be that he’s smiling.