Earth Day: A Native narrative

Photo courtesy of Ryan McMahon

Photo courtesy of Ryan McMahon

The wisdom and creativity of Coast Salish Peoples will be at the heart of this year’s Earth Day celebrations.

Supported by the City of Vancouver, the Kwi Awt Stelmexw and the Tsleil-Waututh Nations are celebrating the 46th annual Earth Day with a multimedia indigenous celebration of youth, the city and the planet. The theme is reconciliation and shared environmental stewardship. On Apr. 22, Voices of Elders will be heard at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

The main event will feature speeches, films, music and dancing. Headlining speakers and artists are some of the most respected indigenous figures in Canada, including Lee Maracle, the first indigenous woman to be published in Canada, Chief Bobby Joseph, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and Joan Phillip.

Not least of these is the master of ceremonies, comedian Ryan McMahon.

Making light of heavy work

Anishinaabe Ryan McMahon set out from treaty territory some twenty years ago with the dreams of an aspiring actor. As he developed into an extraordinary storyteller, earning a degree in theatre and graduating from Toronto’s respected Second City Conservatory, he found his Native heritage accompanying him everywhere. “The stories I wanted to tell,” he says, “just weren’t being told on TV and in mainstream theatre.” So instead of waiting for suitable opportunities, he made his own.

Today, McMahon has an accomplished résumé of comedy, storytelling, and aboriginal truth-telling. He has been hailed a “Native George Carlin” and a “comedic surgeon.” He was voted a name to watch (“New Faces Canada”) at his 2012 Just for Laughs debut, and he was the first Native comedian to be featured in a full-length stand-up comedy special by CBC TV (Ryan McMahon – UnReserved). McMahon’s current comedy tour takes him across Canada and the United States. The CEO of a Native media conglomerate, he is also a writer and a blogger.

His podcast Red Man Laughing is in its fifth season, and has aired on CBC national radio.

And though this sounds like a great success story, there is an abiding frustration in his work.

“The fight goes on,” McMahon says, “the politicians just wear different coloured suits. These issues go back to colonialism.”

The political environment

When I ask McMahon to comment on his working environment, his first reaction is, “I’m not hopeful.”

It is an admission of the size of the job he has chosen. As an Aboriginal with an unusual voice, he feels the responsibility to use it.

“I’m tired – as an indigenous comedian I don’t get a chance to just be funny. Someone has to continue to push those walls further and further so there’s room for us to survive and live in. Our politicians, chiefs and academics can’t really do that.”

Though McMahon is grateful for Canada’s freedom of speech, he considers the attentions of the federal government so far to be mere pleasantry.

“In an era of reconciliation, you hope that politically things might change but it’s really up to a sustained pressure from the people to see that change happen.” So he ploughs on.

Reimagining the future

McMahon has always pushed back against the status quo – it’s part of his love for comedy.

“As a comedian,” he says, “I’m my own boss. I’ve made a really big effort to work on my own terms and not depend on assistance that didn’t have my best interests at heart.” But even if he doesn’t work for the feedback of a boss, he works for the much more demanding voice of justice.

He retraces his steps from his earlier statement of disillusionment. “I guess I can say that I’m hopeful so long as Canadians are willing to dream that a different Canada is possible. A Canada safe for indigenous people and the spirit of the people. One where we can lead good, full, sovereign lives. One that embraces indigenous contributions. One that acknowledges its colonial history and respects the lands and waters we are so fortunate to have.”

It seems fitting that so many years after Riel famously spoke of the power of artists, this storyteller is on the frontlines of the First Nations struggle for change. His career is a curious story of anger and approval. McMahon has always felt well-received, even embraced, by the CBC and other mainstream audiences. But it’s not because he pulls his punches. “Investigations into the collision between Indian country and the mainstream” is how Red Man Laughing self-describes.

“I’d much rather disrupt people than tickle them. After all we [the First Nations] have been through – we’re still here.”

To McMahon, cultural events like Voices of Elders are a chance to display the diversity and richness of indigenous culture.

“What’s cool is that so many communities celebrate so differently. Around the Great Lakes, there’s a big celebration on the health of the Lakes. In Vancouver it’s issues that plague the West Coast – like the Salish Sea being used as a supertanker freeway.”

The chance to change our future, he says, is in front of us if we want it and are willing to tell the politicians so.

“In this era of reconciliation, you hope that politically things might change but it’s really up to a sustained pressure from the people to see that change happen.”

All proceeds from Earth Day 2016: Voice of Elders go to select Coast Salish youth initiatives. Tickets can be bought at

More of McMahon’s work can be found at