Laughter and reconciliation: Don Burnstick reflects on Canada 150 during Northern tour

Things have changed since Don Burnstick first started doing stand-up comedy in the 1990s. 'There’s a rise in consciousness,' the Cree comedian says.

Cree comedian says humour is key ingredient for healing and moving forward

(Submitted by Don Burnstick)

Things have changed since Don Burnstick first started doing stand-up comedy in the 1990s.

"There's a rise in consciousness," the Cree comedian said. "Not just native people, but white people. They are very aware of what Canada did to us."

In his decades touring the country, Burnstick has used some of that material to make people laugh.

This week, he brought his act to Carcoss, Yukon, and Fort Providence, N.W.T., with another stop planned in Tulita.

"There's 150 years of celebration for Canada, but also 150 years of endurance for us," he reflected.

"We have had to put up with a lot of stuff. What it does, it shows the resilience and strength of our people. No matter what they did with boarding schools and churches, we have never lost our culture and identity."

More laughter needed for healing

Burnstick grew up on the Alexander First Nation reserve located outside of Edmonton as the youngest of 15 children.

He wound up on the streets of Edmonton as an alcoholic and drug addict before sobering up and eventually becoming one of Canada's best known comedians.

Burnstick, who is also a trained alcohol and drug counsellor, says he wishes more people would recognize the important role humour plays in healing.

"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission missed the boat on humour," he said.

"There are four really important parts to the healing process, based on what the elders have told me. There's prayer, sharing, crying, and laughing. If you do those four things, you will heal over hardship, loss, and grief. The TRC had those gatherings, they shared, prayed, cried, but there was no laughing, no closure, no healing."

Can't joke about everything

Although Burnstick values humour as a way of healing, he doesn't think everything is worthy of a laugh.

"I know where the line is and I won't go there."

He says that in the past he has joked about some elements of residential school, but was told by elders that it was still too soon, so he set those jokes aside. "I won't joke about the abuse at the boarding schools, it's still too raw, too tender, it could backfire. I always make sure on stage to walk that fine line."  

"What I do is, I basically hold the mirror up on stage about our lives, all the funny things we have endured in our lives. I talk about those things."