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January-February 2017

2017 Kick-Ass Activist: Courtney Skye

Comedian Courtney Skye uses her dark humour to address tough-to-broach Indigenous issues

Hana Shafi@hanashafi

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 11.16.16 AMCourtney Skye first thought to dabble in comedy after a trip to the makeup store. While in a Sephora in Hamilton, Ont., shopping for mascara and matte lipstick, she presented her First Nations status card while paying. The cashier took notice. “Oh you’re First Nations?” she said. “I hear a lot of your women have been murdered.” Such a lack of sensitivity was almost comical—and made Skye realize she could shed light on important issues with jokes.

Since then, it has been Skye’s goal to turn a terrible experience into a punchline. The 29-year-old has only been in stand-up for two years, but has already pushed the boundaries of traditional comedy by weaving issues like racism, violence, and gender equity into clever jokes. She’s the co-founder and co-producer of Bad Bitches, a feminist stand-up collective that regularly holds shows at the downtown Toronto venue Comedy Bar, and a member of Manifest Destiny’s Child, a ragtag collective of Indigenous women comedians.

“I was like, ‘I need to write the funniest joke about missing and murdered Indigenous women,’” she says, “because the second someone tries to talk about it, and do it wrong, other comics will then be like, ‘Well you can’t talk about that because Courtney already did.’”

Approaching a topic this serious with humour just wouldn’t make sense for most people. But Skye believes in the power of stand-up to push issues to the forefront. In discussing them in her comedy, she’s getting the audience to confront real social issues that they otherwise might ignore. And for those directly affected by these issues, it provides an opportunity to heal through laughter.

For Skye, the dark humour—and the heartening, supportive messages behind it—comes naturally. She has done frontline work that has exposed her to the frightening realities of life—poverty, suicide, gendered violence, racism— and those experiences have found their way into her work as a comedian, a job where many field racism, homophobia, and misogyny regularly.

This humour stems from her personal life, too. In 2008, a friend of Skye’s was murdered. “People didn’t value her, because in her missing poster she was wearing Indigenous regalia,” Skye says. “I don’t think I ever really have known how much that’s changed my perspective.” In a way, Skye’s humour is a form of reconciliation with the tragedies that she’s witnessed in her frontline work and that have affected her personally.

Skye, who is Mohawk Turtle Clan, grew up in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, in Ontario. She lived there until she graduated from high school and moved to Sudbury, Ont., to study police foundations at Cambrian College.

Two years ago, she landed work in Toronto. She would spend her day doing 9-to-5 work, then commute all the way back to Six Nations where she would often be up until 3 a.m. doing volunteer firefighting. When she couldn’t keep up with the exhausting pace, she moved to downtown Toronto.

Eventually, Skye became bored with her sudden free time and signed up for Comedy Girl, a class by Dawn Whitwell, one of the pioneers of Toronto’s thriving feminist comedy scene. With a group of other women in the class, she co-founded Bad Bitches. “I wanted something that was super feminist and could walk that line between PC and not offensive, but allowing women the space to be blue and to be crude, and to be graphic, and to be gross,” she says.

Bad Bitches, Skye says, have an unapologetically intersectional feminist approach. A typical show might feature anything from period jokes to risky jabs about how often women are killed at the hands of men for rejecting them. It’s a far cry from the typical “bro” atmosphere that one expects at a traditional stand-up show.

“I think white men only persevere in stand-up because they have so much cognitive dissonance about what is going on,” she says. In fact, she hopes straight white men feel uncomfortable with her sets—they’re rarely the butt of the joke in comedy, but rather the ones joking about already marginalized group.

With Bad Bitches, and Skye’s other stand-up shows, these norms and stereotypes are being shattered. “I’ve never gone out intentionally to spite white men, I’ve never gone out intentionally trying to rile them,” says Skye, “but they occupy a place of privilege and when you’re challenging a privilege, when you’re challenging the system, they perceive that as a personal threat.”

Skye’s work may seem contradictory—stand-up is probably one of the last things someone would think of when it comes to talking about racism, sexism, and violence. But that’s the essence of Skye’s work: confronting the scary realities in life, and making people laugh about them as a form of healing and reconciling with these realities. In her line of work, laughter really is the best medicine.

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