Iqaluit will be home to the first ever First Air Arctic Comedy Festival, with all its proceeds in support of the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line.
The festival, which runs from Oct. 11 to 14, is opening the door for local Nunavut comics to break into Canada’s comedy scene, while supporting local mental health initiatives, said organizer John Helmkay.
“Every single comic I talk to wants to go,” he said. “You really see a unique opportunity and festival for Canada that will bring some special comics and performers up there.”
The festival was inspired by the Iqaluit competition for the Alterna Savings Crackup Comedy festival this past March, when First Air flew comics from Nunavut to Ottawa to battle for two top spots at the Ottawa festival, Helmkay said.
This year, they’ll fly comics into Iqaluit for the festival, with 10 comics from Nunavut alongside popular comics including Canadian comedian Mary Walsh, the creator and star of This Hour has 22 Minutes, and Howie Miller, one of Canada’s few Indigenous professional comedians.
Miller has performed at major Canadian comedy festivals, including Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival, and on the American Showtime special No Reservations Needed.
“My act has changed significantly over the years from elephant in the room, ‘Hey, I’m native,’ to this derogatory stance to get people’s attention … to a smarter, in your face attitude about native issues … to make people kind of uncomfortable but say things that need to be said,” he said.
“It’s that time of making it awkward and putting it in your face and no, I’m not whining about it, and we’re going to laugh and have a good time. I’m not gonna back down anymore,” he said.
Miller will appear alongside his son, Tyson Houseman, who appeared in the Twilight Movie Series and works to empower youth.
Walsh, Miller and Houseman will offer writing and performing workshops.
In total, there will be 15 performers flying in, but Helmkay is encouraging anyone interested in trying their hand at stand-up to reach out.
Mental health is dear to the hearts of many people who are in the business of making people laugh, said Helmkay.
“It runs, anxiety and addiction runs really strong in that community so they love supporting that cause because it impacts them,” he said.
The festival chose to raise funds for the mental health line because of the “noted need for these services in Nunavut and the possibility of being able to help with that,” said Helmkay.
At the Ottawa Crackup Comedy Festival, one comic from Nunavut didn’t make it to the show and died by suicide shortly after, he said.
“It really shows the breadth of the impact of mental health all around the community,” said Helmkay, who hopes the festival will build partnerships and expand to other Arctic communities with sponsors in future years.
The workshops will be an opportunity for aspiring comics to try their hand at sketch comedy and learn alongside other comedians.
The festival will feature an Indigenous Comedy Show, themed shows, visits to elementary and high schools and a stop in Pangnirtung. A final gala at the Frobisher Inn with a raffle and silent auction will raise money for the help line.
The Kamatsiaqtut Help Line opened its lines in January 1990, and relies on the support of volunteers and organizations, said executive director Sheila Levy.
It’s available 24/7 to anyone in crisis or in need of a non-judgmental ear.
The line receives up to 100 calls per month, up from a total of 400 calls in the entire first year of operation.
Fundraising helps with training, phone bills and rent and support from various organizations is vital to its operations, she said.
“We can do more as a result,” she said.
Visibility for the helpline is important so that Nunavummiut know there are trained people available that they can speak to for free.