Lena Recollet was terrified as she prepared for her first stand-up comedy set, a few years back. She had obsessively rehearsed, but when her name was finally called, she felt as if she were going to black out. She couldn’t see the audience. Her mind went blank.
She found herself worrying: “What if I’m not funny?”
“I told everyone, ‘I’m sorry; I’m just really nervous. This is my first time doing stand-up, and I have borderline diabetes.’ They started laughing, and I felt a huge sense of relief.”
Today, Recollet is a member of Manifest Destiny’s Child, an all-Indigenous female comedy group based in Toronto. Once an aspiring actor, she transitioned to comedy when she grew tired of playing a victim of trauma — seemingly the only role available to her. She needed a little levity.
So she enrolled in a course taught at Toronto’s Comedy Bar called Comedy Girl, which focuses on developing women comics. There, she met the women who would form MDC, a group of roughly half a dozen comics who perform together, write together, and, most importantly, support one another.
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“It’s such a relief, it’s so rejuvenating, and it’s always amazing getting together with them,” says Recollet. “When it comes to a group of women doing comedy, and because our intentions when we started were just that — just women doing comedy — it was so healing.”
Their message, though, is more specific. On its Facebook page, MDC says its members want to share “their humble, humorous, and gregarious perspectives on what it means to be a modern Indian getting by in a colonial world.” And while the group has changed since its inception, with members coming and going, the message has always remained the same.
One member, Denise McLeod, says the group’s strength is its ability to showcase different perspectives. “I talk a lot about my own experience; a lot of its pretty traumatic, fucked-up, and sad, because I’m Indigenous, and that’s our reality,” she says. “We tell these jokes so that other people understand our lived experiences.”
Though the comedians don’t see themselves primarily as educators, they often end up playing that role for non-Indigenous audiences. McLeod says that people approach her after shows to thank her for teaching them. Many audience members tell her that they didn’t realize Indigenous people had to deal with some of the things she talks about — such as the ongoing impacts of colonialism, residential schools, and the Sixties Scoop.
“I think it’s easier for them to learn because they don’t feel like they’re being attacked,” she says.
It’s a familiar role for McLeod, who’s a teacher at George Brown College by day. Her teaching style is different on stage, though — she says she’s less “in your face” and “guilt-inducing” when performing with MDC than she is in the classroom.
Recollet also aims for approachability, leaning heavily on metaphor. “Sometimes I’m talking about a dysfunctional relationship, and then you’ll realize I’m talking about the government’s relationship with Indigenous people,” says Recollet. “My intention is to try and get a message out. I have a message to the world for each audience, each night.”
One of the first bits she ever performed was about Justin Trudeau. It starts off with Recollet playing a single woman in Toronto who’s “rescued” by the prime minister after a rollerblading accident. It ends with her becoming wary as he tries to woo her — she wonders whether Trudeau is someone she can trust.
“That’s what I love about comedy: you can say things that may seem harsh, but you’re joking,” says Recollet. “When you get mad at people and tell them, ‘You’re wrong,’ they don’t listen — but, with stand-up, I can get my message out in a different way.”
MDC also wants to help people understand who Indigenous women are. McLeod says media coverage can leave the public thinking that all Indigenous women are helpless, in danger, or struggling. “It’s nice to show people that there’s more than one sort of narrative,” she says. “And, for a long time, there weren’t a lot of Indigenous women comics, which is shocking to me, because Indigenous women are hilarious.”
Across Canada, Indigenous comedians are starting to gain profile. Ryan McMahon, Tim Fontaine, Don Kelly, Howie Miller, and Candy Palmater have all found success. This isn’t surprising, McLeod says, given that comic relief has long been important to Indigenous communities.
“Comedy was used as a tool of our survival for so long,” she explains. “Our humour is directly linked to the years of genocide, cultural appropriation, and everything else that’s happened to us. Of course, we had to make light of this — or else we wouldn’t have survived.”