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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
Stories
Introduction
  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 6 of 7: 'I was tired of being poor'


Dead Dog Cafe The verbal fumbles seem to irritate King, but Flaherty decides not to worry. Back at the CBC, she says, she would have been all over a performer for messing up a line. She had to be as tough as the guys. But here, a white person barking commands to a native would give the wrong impression, she says.

Flaherty also knows that Rain, although she has played Gracie from the start, is the show's one true outsider, and perhaps its truest aboriginal person in terms of her life's experience.

Rain is certainly the only one on stage who looks her part, not just because of her long face and nose, framed by sagging ears and cheeks, and a ponytail crawling down her back. And not just because of the leather jacket emblazoned with "Gathering of Nations Pow-wow" she wears - a trophy from one of her many tours as a championship powwow dancer.

Rain's obvious discomfort on stage only adds to her image as the reserved but wise native woman. Despite six years with Dead Dog, she admits to not being at home here. King and Starr lap up the crowd's responses, but she maintains a nervous stance, never looking up from the script.

While the others eat steak or visit a sweat lodge, she prefers to sit in her hotel room and watch TV with a couple of grandchildren who have come with her from her home in Edmonton. For her, almost any time off stage is family time.

A divorced mother of six, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of six, Rain came to acting from decades of abuse. When she took it up at 55, she had just buried a daughter, who had died of a drug overdose and left behind three orphaned children for Rain to raise. Two years before that, she had lost a son to a brain tumour.

Rain grew up poor in rural Alberta during what she calls "the hungry Forties." Her family could not afford to send her to school until she was 9. Her mother died when she was 12. Her father disappeared. Her older brother became her guardian and refused to allow the local teacher, a non-native, to adopt her. She has yet to forgive him because she spent her teen years with just two sets of clothing, and a dream to escape her reserve.

She would not start to realize the dream until she was 32, when she quit her job in the band office and enrolled in a four-year administrative program with the Alberta Vocational College. "I was tired of being poor," she says. "I was tired of not being able to give for my children, but what motivated me most was I wanted to be someone."

She started the program with seven others from her band. She was the only one to finish.

It would be another two decades, though, before she took a son's advice and signed up for acting lessons, after she had left her husband and moved to Edmonton. The 1990s were a good time for natives playing natives, not just on Dead Dog Café. A few summers ago, she was flown to Italy for a bit part in a film directed by "a big bearded man." She still does not recognize Francis Ford Coppola by name.

If Rain is the most humble of performers, she is also the show's deepest root in the soil of native culture. On weekends, she returns to her reserve near Duffield, west of Edmonton, to skin, smoke and tan animal hides, and chop wood, which she does for physical and spiritual relief. She once showed up for rehearsal with a dead moose in her trunk.

She also may hold the most typically native view of the show, a kind of equanimity that transcends the cheaply polarized views that tend to dominate native and non-native politics.

"At first, I thought I was ridiculing my own people, but then I realized what we were saying was true," she says during a break in the performance. She laughs at a reference in the script to Indian lawns being crowded with old cars. "It's true."

Since joining the cast, she has come to view her work as "educational humour" that should encourage both native and non-native society to change. She says theatre is not about preaching one's views; it's about seeking truths in many different realities.

"We have to live in both worlds," she says. "We can't isolate ourselves the way we did years ago. We can't cry about what happened years ago. It's time for the young people to grow up and change things."

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


 
 

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photo essays
Two worlds - photo essay


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