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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)


Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Lehmann.
The Globe and Mail, November 9, 2001

Part 1 of 7: 'I think people in Canada didn't know Indians were funny'

Dead Dog Cafe The setting:
A blue-ribbon theatre in a very blueblood city.
The crowd:
White skin. White hair.
The players:
Three North American Indians.
The script:
Conniving natives. Corrupt whites. Confused country.

Tonight, in the heart of royalist Regina, the most politically incorrect group to bring aboriginal issues to Canada's airwaves is about to question the very foundation of our country.

More precisely, the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour wants to ask whether Victoria, the first Queen of Canada, whose imperial rule gave this city its name, had an affair with George Washington. And could that somehow make Canada illegitimate?

Never mind the historical impossibility. (She was born 20 years after his death.) In tonight's Victoria Day special, Jasper Friendly Bear - the radio show's philosophic freeloader - can't help but believe that the Great White Mother ran around the Oval Office with the Great White Father.

"There was no Oval Office back then!" exclaims Tom King, the celebrated native author who is the show's creator and writer as well as one of its stars. "There wasn't even a White House!"

Gracie Heavy Hand, the café's owner and font of ironic native wisdom, gasps in disbelief. "If there was no Oval Office," she asks, "where did the presidents have their affairs?"

"I think people in Canada didn't know Indians were funny. I really mean that. I didn't know that.”
Kathleen Flaherty,
Dead Dog Cafe's producer

Before King can summon a rational response, Jasper trumps him with a piece of literal logic. He says a relative travelling in the States saw several signs proclaiming, "George Washington slept here" - obviously where the Great White Father and Great White Mother consummated their conquest of North America.

As the WASP audience settles into a comfortable rhythm of guffaws and applause, the radio performance proceeds with an evening of assaults on Supreme Court decisions, colonial rule, bureaucratic incompetence, native corruption and bingo. A lot of bingo. After every scene, numbers are called for people in the sold-out crowd, who are blissfully unaware that everyone has been given identical cards.

For six years, Dead Dog Café has lampooned Canada's troubled state of aboriginal affairs in a manner few Canadians might think unfit for public airwaves. Perhaps it's because the writer and stars are native, or because their work exposes some fundamental truths of our two warring societies. Or perhaps because it can make a white audience in Regina stand in applause, even as they laugh at themselves.

"This show has made a cultural impact on a huge number of people," says Kathleen Flaherty, its producer. "I think people in Canada didn't know Indians were funny. I really mean that. I didn't know that."

The radio program is about much more than native satire, as funny as it can be. In a nation that considers comedy a national trait, the Dead Dog Café has used humour to force two societies to come to grips with how they see each other, and themselves.

But it also has forced its native cast, and their non-native producer, to better understand the consequences of their jokes. For King, the show is a political tool. For Edna Rain, who plays Gracie, it is entertainment. For Flaherty, it is the expression of history's downtrodden, in the style of Jewish humour.

But for Floyd Favel Starr, the Saskatchewan actor who plays Jasper Friendly Bear, it also may be something quite wrong. After watching another predominantly white crowd laugh at natives making fun of natives, he has to wonder whether his career's greatest public success is nothing more than what he calls "red niggers in red face."

"There's an artistic apartheid in this country," Starr says, suggesting that it would be better if a non-native played Jasper Friendly Bear and he played, say, Macbeth.

"It's not just non-aboriginals pushing natives into this situation. Natives contribute 50 per cent of their own ghettoization."

THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 7 plus a related story):

Photo Essay
Backstage pass

1. 'I think people in Canada didn't know Indians were funny'
Using humour to force the two societies to re-examine each other, and themselves

2. 'Socially relevant' humour
Using comedy to tell ironic truths, however painful

3. Appealing to the audience
The racier the humour got, the more fan mail came in

4. Forbidden zones
'As long as you don't let the lions and tigers out of the cage, it's okay.'

5. Laughter "is the great leveller" in native society
Finding his way on the stage

6. 'I was tired of being poor'
Edna Rain takes up acting after decades of abuse

7. The curtain falls
The three performers leave the way they arrived - in different directions

Related: Dead Dog Café Listeners react



photo essays
Two worlds - photo essay

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