It’s a bit surprising to hear from a comedian that kindness is her number one ideal, but Candy Palmater is no average comedian — and her definition of kindness includes truth-telling, justice and equality.
“When you pull all the politics away, kindness is what it’s about,” says Palmater. “To me, that means one person isn’t throwing away food while somebody else is starving and that I’m not judged by the colour of my skin or who I sleep with.”
Palmater, who counts among her many occupations lawyer, activist, government bureaucrat, sought-after speaker and self-professed dyke-cotomy, believes that the key to equality is creating space for all of us to be exactly who we are.
“All my life, I’ve been struggling not to be pushed into a box,” she says. “I’m not fully straight, but I’m not fully gay. I’m not fully Mi’kmaq, but I’m not white. I’m an athlete and I’m really girly in how I present. I have one whole room in my house dedicated to make-up. I just don’t fit into boxes. I am what I am.”
Palmater was born the youngest of seven kids, to a Mi’kmaq father and a white mother in Point La Nim, New Brunswick in 1968. Her dad, a recovering alcoholic, had moved the family to 135 acres of farmland the year before because he felt he needed to be somewhere isolated to stay sober. He wanted a second chance at fatherhood after finding a way to cope with his addiction and overcome the poverty that resulted from it.
After the move, he asked his wife what she thought about having one more kid — and doing it right this time. She said yes to the idea, and it didn’t take long after Candy was born for her dad to realize that he got more than he had bargained for in his youngest child.
“I think I was the universe’s joke on him,” says Palmater. “My dad was a chauvinist, and he ruled the roost with an iron fist. At 46, he has a child with his exact personality, except it’s a girl child. It took some time for me to break and re-train my father, but it happened — much to the amazement of my mother.”
Her independent spirit and commitment to being herself has led to a number of other surprises along the way, as well. She graduated from law school at 30 — a profession she pursued to make change in labour and Aboriginal law in Canada — but only two years later, she realized that she needed to walk away from the field and come at these issues from another angle.
“I was struggling — trying to be a lawyer in a corporate firm was like trying to disguise a grizzly bear as a bunny rabbit,” she says. “I wanted to be an advocate, so it was the ultimate square peg in a round hole.”
To make things more complicated, Palmater realized around the same time that she was queer. She was very surprised to figure this out at the age of 32, but her soon-to-be-ex-husband was not.
“He said, ‘Candy, anytime we’re driving or walking somewhere, you’re elbowing me in the ribs, going ‘check her out!’ I gotta tell you — most women aren’t telling their boyfriends to check other women out,'” she says.
She took a couple of weeks to make some decisions about her life, and then acted on them all at once. This was about eight years ago.
“I left the relationship, left men and left lawyering all in one month — it was quite a fell swoop!” says Palmater, who clearly has courage to spare when it comes to facing uncomfortable truths.
When she met her partner Denise a few months later, she came out to her family right away.
“My mother’s reaction was, ‘This is the first time you’ve brought somebody home who has a job and has never been to jail — we love her,'” says Palmater, laughing. “I guess my taste in men wasn’t very good.”
After her eldest sister saw how smoothly it went, she also came out — which makes for two out of three daughters in their family queer.
“We joke now that our sister Sharon is the disappointment in the family because she married a man. But we let her know that we’re okay with that,” she says, with an audible grin.
In her comedy shows, Palmater uses the same wry wit and unflinching honesty to express her ideals. She’s such a natural onstage, you wouldn’t guess that it was only three years ago that she did stand-up for the first time.
In 2005, the organizers of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Women’s Forum approached her about doing a comedy set in their stage show after seeing her work as an emcee around Halifax, where she’s based. Because Palmater’s so gutsy, she said yes.
“I agreed to do it because I’ll do anything once,” says Palmater. “But I said, ‘I’m not going to charge you because I could suck.'”
Since then, her comedy has drawn a lot of attention, and she’s used her increasing profile to pitch her life-long dream of hosting a talk show to anyone who will listen.
That too paid off — Palmater shot a pilot of The Candy Show earlier this year, which aired Canada-wide on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network on Sep 6. Though she’s still waiting to hear if the network is going to pick it up, she’s hopeful because of the great feedback she received from the public and the network. Buts she says that even if it doesn’t happen, it’s been worth it for the ride.
“You know, my brother Billy died at 50 — he got cancer,” says Palmater. “When we knew for sure that he was going to die, he and I had a conversation, and he said, ‘You know, Candy, all my life I’ve made decisions that people thought were crazy, but I lived how I wanted to live. Now I’m 50 and I’m dying and I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do.’ When he told me that, I thought to myself, can I say that?
“That’s why I do so much — none of us are guaranteed any length of time in life. So you better experience everything you want to experience, and do it quick. Even if my show doesn’t get picked up, I got to shoot that pilot. It was such a cool experience to shoot a TV show and feel what that was like. The journey of trying to make it happen has been super-fun. And if I die tomorrow, I can say that I didn’t waste any time.”