After Ojibway writer Drew Hayden Taylor accepted an invitation to emcee an event celebrating native humour at the Kennedy Center in Washington, he went back to the reserve to tell his mother about it, and asked her what she thought.
"My mother paused for a moment," he recalls, "and she looked up at me very thoughtfully and said: 'Well, you better learn to be funny.'"
Taylor – playwright, author, screenwriter, documentary filmmaker, satirist – has used humour throughout his career to explore First Nations issues. That's how he goes through life, too. During a recent interview, he offered up a couple of native jokes collected for Me Funny, his 2006 book on native humour. (Example: "Why do people hate snow? Because it's white and all over our land.") And after being thanked for the discussion, he ended the conversation with: "I do weddings and bar mitzvahs too."
But back to the beginning of the conversation. We're talking in advance of the premiere of his new play, God and the Indian, which is most certainly not a comedy. This is the story of Johnny (Tantoo Cardinal), a Cree woman who, while panhandling outside a Tim Hortons, recognizes – or thinks she does – a face from the residential school she was forced to attend decades ago. She follows the man (Michael Kopsa) – an Anglican priest who has moved up in the ranks of the church – to his office and confronts him about the abuse that took place at the school.
Taylor, 50, began working on the story at the suggestion of Yvette Nolan, then artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto. "She issued me a challenge. She said 'Drew, everybody knows you can be funny. I want to see how serious you can be,' " he remembers her saying. "So I picked the most depressing topic I could think of: residential schools."
Taylor, who was born on the Curve Lake First Nations reserve near Lakefield, Ontario, says nobody in his immediate family was sent to a residential school. Still, the local day school did not allow his mother to speak her native language; at recess, she would play as far away from the school as possible, so she wouldn't get into trouble for speaking Anishinaabe.
Taylor wrote the play over several years, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the rising Idle No More movement in the backdrop. He did a fair bit of reading but, even without the immediate family connection, this is an issue about which he already knew a great deal.
"You cannot be a native person in Canada and travel in the communities without meeting residential school survivors, and witnessing and experiencing the repercussions of several generations of abuse that came from that institution. So while I personally have not been touched by it, I have been a witness to it, as has every native person and many non-native people in Canada," says Taylor, who calls himself the ultimate Canadian: born on July 1, half-native, half-white. Another joke.
For Taylor, who's currently writer in residence at Ryerson University – the same institution that didn't accept him into its radio and television arts program many years ago – writing this play has been a challenge on many levels. He's had to reel in the jokes, and explore new dramatic territory – for him, anyway.
"There seems to be this interest in telling the darker stories of the native community and that's sort of the default zone," says Taylor. "I've noticed in a lot of native theatre that a lot of companies like to explore and highlight and I guess just bring to the forefront all of the dysfunctions in the native community, whereas I've always preferred to celebrate the things that have allowed us to survive. ... It's been, in my opinion, our sense of humour that's allowed us to survive all these years."
Not that everyone always gets the joke, or agrees with his point of view. For last year's Canada Day edition of The Globe and Mail, Taylor wrote a satirical piece suggesting native people apologize to Canada for offences such as "being so inconsiderate as to occupy land that, one day, your people would want," and "for not understanding the subtle connections between God, children and sexual abuse." The essay drew close to 1,200 online comments. "A racist oversimplification of history," wrote one reader; "inane passive-aggressivism over something that happened 300-400 years ago," wrote another.
And when his play alterNATIVES was produced in 1999 at Vancouver's Firehall Arts Centre (where God and the Indian will premiere), one performance had to be cancelled shortly before curtain following a threatening phone call from someone accusing the play of being racist against white people.
"I just thought 'Wow, I got a bomb threat. That goes directly on the resume,' " says Taylor.
Firehall artistic producer Donna Spencer – who was also there in 1999 – says the company is deeply committed to presenting works that reflect the diversity of the population. But it's very important, she stresses, that this work be seen by audiences of all backgrounds.
"We all have a responsibility in terms of encouraging healing as a result of this action," says Spencer. "It's not just a First Nations problem. It is a Canadian challenge."