HUMOUR DURING DARK TIMES
Métis comic says `our people have laughed for generations,' even in periods of oppression
Comedy is important during dark times, says Jenn Hayward, the Ottawa-based Métis comic who runs, with her husband, a quickly growing local fulfilment and delivery company called Gopher It Deliveries.
It's a busy time for their fouryear-old business, but she's putting her managerial duties aside for a night to perform as part of Got Land?, a showcase of First Nations and Métis comedians presented online Saturday by the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival.
Complicating the notion of a lighthearted evening of entertainment is the recent news of the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children buried near a residential school in Kamloops, B.C. While this is clearly no joking matter, Hayward is seeing an irony in the outraged reaction of Canada's predominantly white settler society.
“This is triggering to pretty much every Indigenous person I know because we have known about it for years, and yet it's shocking to so many other people,” she said. “It's up to the allies now to hear our voices and start the action. If suburban white women can get the government to change their stance on crayons at Dollarama, then maybe we could use some of that privilege for the betterment of our people.”
There are signs of hope. In her 20 years of performing comedy, first in her home province of Saskatchewan, Hayward has seen an increased acceptance of more diverse voices. Back when she landed in Ottawa, more than a decade ago, if someone wanted to book a female Indigenous comic, they came to her. If they wanted a male, they went to Don Kelly, the Gemini-nominated writer and television personality (who is also on the Got Land? program).
“Now you can have entire Indigenous shows with lots of performers and I might not even be on it, and it will still be a good show,” she joked during a recent interview.
Hayward believes the explosion of Indigenous creativity in a wide range of art forms — from hip hop to film to comedy — stems from a cohort of younger folks with internet access who are able to connect with each other.
“There's a generation of people who didn't have the internet when they were younger starting to find their voices,” she said.
“People feel a little more free because they can find a community now even if they're a little disconnected. I think that's where some of these voices are coming from now, and we're becoming more mainstream.”
Many of those voices have a political edge, the result of having grown up in or originating from communities lacking clean drinking water, adequate housing, employment or education opportunities, and where the suicide rates among youths are many times higher than the rest of the country.
It can make for edgy comedy, notes Hayward, who welcomes the unfiltered expression.
“Indigenous people have the right to have their voice and talk about their experiences of oppression,” she said. “It can be very much f--k-the-system comedy. That's not my style but if done correctly, it's very good. If not, you look like a fool and that's the joy of comedy. If people aren't laughing, then we haven't done our job.”
Got Land? was formed in 2019 by producer/comedian Janelle Niles, who mounted the first show at a diner in Ottawa. It was created as a stage for First Nation, Inuk and Métis entertainers to tell jokes, share experiences and express solidarity, and has grown into a production company with 10 performers on the roster. Eight of them are featured on the Got Land? program, including founder Niles, Hayward and Kelly, as well as Stephanie Pangowish, Kevin Shawanda, Greg Dreaver, Dakota Ray Hebert and Shawn Cuthand.
According to Hayward, Niles is one of the stars of the show, while Dakota Ray Hebert, who is Dene from Saskatchewan, is the one to watch. “She is a powerhouse,” Hayward says. “She's going to be an international star. Anyone watching the show is literally going to be watching her.”
The 46-year-old wife and mother of adopted children started doing comedy in her hometown of Saskatoon. She was a shy child but loved to watch An Evening at The Improv. As a young adult, she surprised friends and family by entering a comedy contest and winning second place. She kept it up after moving to Regina, then began to take it more seriously when she moved to Ottawa in 2007, landing a day job in the justice system.
With her charmingly frank demeanour and subject matter that touches on relationships, parenting and weight (she used to weigh 400 pounds), Hayward found that women were her first fans. Her Indigenous heritage also figures in her routine, though it's not from a land-based perspective.
“I'm a light-skinned Métis woman so I talk about my experiences, but I never talk about things that have never occurred to me,” she said. “For example, I don't talk about growing up on a reservation because I'm not First Nations.”
No matter what the style of comedy, Hayward feels it's critical for people to express themselves, particularly during challenging times.
“Our people have laughed for generations, even during the most extreme oppression, when medicines were taken away and people were not allowed to gather,” she said.
“We would laugh. We would have ceremony. We would still develop and survive in the community in the best way we possibly could. Laughter is key.”