Host and comedian Janelle Niles steps out in front of a packed crowd at Eddy’s diner on Bank Street in downtown Ottawa to open an evening of comedy.
“We here at Eddy’s Diner would like to acknowledge that we are standing on unceded Algonquin Territory.”
“Up until yesterday I was under the impression only white people had to say that,” she quips to the response of roars of laughter from the audience.
(Janelle Niles warms the crowd up at Eddy’s Diner on Indigenous comedy night. Photo: Shelby Lisk/APTN)
The name of the all Indigenous comedy night, “Got Land?”, was inspired by a joke Niles’ created for her first ever stand-up comedy routine.
She breaks from her storytelling to share this joke, singing in the tune of familiar folk song this land is my land but with a native spin.
“As I went walking, down the highway of tears, I saw my ancestors and I swallowed all my fears. I looked behind me, there’s the RCMP, ‘ma’am this is private property.’ Well, this land is my land, this land ain’t your land. You pretty much stole it, right out of our hands. You made my people sign a treaty that we didn’t fully understand. So give us back our f**king land,” Niles finishes to the sound of chuckles.
“Got Land? is about getting people to recognize and acknowledge that this is unceded Algonquin territory so recognizing what that is and what that means and getting people to think a little bit about where we are,” says comedian Jennifer Ferrante.
Ferrante, from Pikwàkanagàn First Nation just west of Ottawa, also came out with a song, specifically to serenade Justin Trudeau with a tune she created to the melody of No Doubt’s I’m just a girl.
“I’m just a savage in Canada, that’s all that you’ll let me be,” starts Ferrante as she sings to a print out of Trudeau’s face stuck to a cut out body wearing a suit and tie.
“We’re talking about serious issues in a funny manner so we’re being quite facetious but we’re also opening up a dialogue and that’s what this show is about,” says Niles, a woman of Mi’kmaw and African Canadian descent from Nova Scotia.
(“I’m just a savage in Canada,” Jennifer Ferrante sings to a cut-out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo: Shelby Lisk/APTN)
With the election around the corner, can comedy open people’s minds to First Nations issues?
These comedians think so.
“Some of my jokes can be a bit abrasive but you can’t get anywhere unless you push,” says Niles. “Sometimes it’s really hard to have a one on one conversation to change people’s opinions.”
She said that comedy allows the audience to connect with the material in a different way. The audience hears everyone laughing and it can be a more comfortable environment for changing perspectives on uncomfortable issues.
“Everyone says, ‘oh wow, everyone is really responding, maybe this can change the dialogue.’”
With the discussion of shared trauma and the hope of moving forward in a good way, comedians took on topics like the 60s scoop, missing and murdered Indigenous women, land and treaty rights.
But also lighter topics such as the blunders of navigating dating apps as an Indigenous person and rez life.
Cash Cardinal, from Beaver Lake Cree First Nation in Alberta, was performing stand up for his very first time.
He found inspiration for telling jokes from his upbringing as the only Indigenous person in a predominantly white neighbourhood.
Watch Cash Cardinal in his first stand up routine at Eddy’s Diner in Ottawa
Classmates would poke fun at him and humour was one way for him to deal with being different.
“I was adopted. I was a part of the scoop. That was one of the jokes I told up there. How about a native ice cream store called ‘the scoop?’” says Cardinal.
However, not all of the comedians got political.
Nathanial Parant, who was performing stand up for his second time, said that comedy for him is all about community and wellness.
“Comedy is so rooted in our beingness as Indigenous people. It is what has allowed us to be resilient,” he said.
“It has allowed us to survive. There’s nothing like comedy in community with our elders.”
This amateur comedy show is the first all Indigenous comedy set to be a part of Eddy’s Diner bi-weekly comedy nights, which Niles believes in well overdue.
(“Comedy is so rooted in our beingness as Indigenous people,” says Nathanial Parant. Photo: Shelby Lisk/APTN)
Following the event, Niles is even more confident that Indigenous comedy is exactly what Ottawa needed.
“We were hungry for it. Starved – for lack of a better term. It felt inspiring giving people that space to have a good belly laugh, as we sit on our bannock butts and chuckle about topics we only wish we could say in every-day-life,” she said.
“It’s Idle No More but with comedy.”
Niles partners with her twin sister, Jilleen Niles, who manages Eddy’s Diner to put on the bi-weekly comedy night.
The space, only able to seat about 45-50 people, was packed full with some audience members standing in the back and even in the doorway to enjoy the show.
Niles is in talks with Algonquin College to do an all Indigenous comedy night at a bigger location to accommodate those guests that had to be turned away from the diner Tuesday night.