When the Anishinaabe-Métis comedian and writer Ryan McMahon walked into Vice Media’s Toronto office, he knew the meeting was going be on his terms. McMahon had contributed to Vice previously, but this meeting was to touch base with Daily Vice producer Tomas Urbina and managing editor Josh Visser about his new column, and to shoot a segment promoting a brand new idea–The2167.org. McMahon envisions it as an Indigenous institute or think tank, and a place of resurgence for Indigenous art, culture and community. “I started thinking about the next 150 years in Canada and put those thoughts together to create The2167,” he says.
The website isn’t saying much yet because McMahon is still in the preliminary stages of pitching the idea to the right people, raising money, and working with investors. Vice had been interested in the concept, and Visser and McMahon had worked out a one-year contract by phone for a monthly column called Canada 2167: Investigating Indigenous Futures. According to the deal, McMahon would own all the content—audio, video, and writing—and he planned to integrate emerging Indigenous voices into the column to help share ideas. “Because Vice is such a large platform and thousands of eyeballs will be on it, we are trying to stretch our creativity here for something new,” he says. “I feel lucky to have a space that I can do whatever the hell I want, so the pressure to produce good content is important to me, and I don’t want to waste the opportunity.”
McMahon knows how to hustle, and he actively seeks out like-minded people who are interested in changing the discourse in Canada to help further his projects. His efforts are paying off: alongside his new column for Vice, he has a 12-part series coming up on CBC’s Day 6. In it, McMahon will take a more comedic approach to Indigenous issues, with a 12-step guide to decolonization in Canada. He’ll do “streeters”—impromptu street interviews—and interview Indigenous people in the community. “I’m trying to tell stories in the digital space that open up conversations and allow people to access a work they may not know,” he says.
“The pressure to produce good content is important to me, and I don’t want to waste the opportunity”
This means finding true Indigenous voices and bringing them forward into mainstream platforms. His podcast, for example, is full of stories from communities across Canada. McMahon’s recording the sixth season of Red Man Laughing (with downloads climbing to 13,000 per episode) for his growing podcast network, Indian & Cowboy, an audio showcase for Indigenous storytellers. The network is the only one of its kind in North America, but it’s a lonely space when there is nothing else out there. Although he’s carved out a diverse audience, financially the network’s still got a ways to go. McMahon is raising about $1,500 a month through Patreon, a crowdfunding service. The money pays for producers and web hosting, with a few hundred dollars left for McMahon and the other regular podcast hosts. “You start having a career where you’re not worried about paying bills, but you’re still two missed cheques away from being homeless,” he says laughing.
Rick Harp, producer of mediaINDIGENA: The Podcast, a weekly current affairs show, says he is fortunate to have met McMahon when he first started out a year ago because there are not many Indigenous role models in podcasting. Harp explains McMahon helped him with the technical aspects of podcasting and shared his experience as an independent producer. “He’s nothing short of a force of nature when it comes to his ambitions and actually getting things done,” says Harp. “He’s built a profile and presence for himself, and that’s a lot of hard work.” But you won’t find McMahon stuck in a production studio. He’s more likely to be travelling across Canada for Red Man Laughing, CBC comedy specials, documentary work like Colonization Road, which he stars in, and the Stories from the Land podcast series.
You could also find him waiting out a storm, like he did last February at the Crowne Plaza in Fredericton after a speaking engagement at the University of New Brunswick. He was forced to record the introduction of his weekly podcast in a hotel room with snow flying and winds whipping up to 80 km/h outside. McMahon has a warm voice you can trust on a wintery night. Putting on a bit of an east coast lilt, he starts with a story about a man he calls the pirate, who approaches him on a Fredericton street shouting, “Holy fuck boy, get yourself a bottle of booze and say yourself a prayer because the storm, she’s a barrelling down on us.” After laughing about it, McMahon assures listeners that no, he didn’t get himself “a bottle of booze,” and goes on with the podcast about going moose hunting in New Brunswick. For times like this, he uses his travelling rig—a Zoom H6 Handy Recorder with microphone and cable. “I have a punishing schedule. I’m committed to the schedule,” he says in a phone interview. “I recorded a podcast in a rental vehicle when I was trying to fall asleep at a truck stop and discovered the underworld of truckers.”
Taking a break from the road in late March, McMahon was home in Winnipeg. “I’m very lucky to have the job I do. The optics are great. It looks cool,” he says in a phone interview. And with his 40th birthday looming, slowing down is not an option. McMahon was in post-production for 100 stories he gathered last fall for Stories from the Land. With the help of a $75,000 Canada Council Reconciliation Grant, McMahon and a small team travelled to 30 Indigenous communities, going wherever he was invited, from churches and school gyms to art galleries and friendship centres. People responded to what reconciliation meant to them. He offered storytelling workshops and production expertise for the live events in the communities to help inspire creative direction. Season two of Stories from the Land drops at the end of April with the relaunch of Indian & Cowboy.
“What I picture is a Vinyl Café done by Aboriginal people that is not fiction, but that has this storytelling tradition inserted into a live format,” he says. “That’s always been the goal.” He grew up listening to Stuart McLean, the late host of Vinyl Café, on the radio, so it’s not difficult to imagine McMahon as an edgier version with that same connection and commitment to community.
“I recorded a podcast in a rental vehicle when I was trying to fall asleep at a truck stop and discovered the underworld of truckers”
Jesse Brown, host of Canadaland, sees the similarities. “There are parallels, but Stuart McLean was about making people feel comfortable, and I don’t think Ryan has done that,” he says. It’s McMahon’s irreverent storytelling style, and ability to keep the conversation on the shiny side of uncomfortable that makes him so much in demand. Brown was banking on that ability when he hired him recently as one of the new hosts on Canadaland Commons, a political show that steers well away from the daily churn of the Ottawa current.
“He’s an active voice in a wider dialogue. I came to be aware of him and respect his input. I think he’s a smart guy, a funny guy and very knowledgeable guy,” he says. McMahon originally said no to the offer because he wanted to focus on his own work, but after several conversations, he realized how innovative the show was and wanted to be part of the conversation. “For me, it’s a challenge. I’m not a Canadian politics guru, but I pay a lot of attention of what’s going on in the country’s politics,” he says.
McMahon knows how to bring Canadian history and politics into his comedy and writing.Here’s the completed new sentence: He originally wanted to be an actor, and his skills were honed on the stage. Soon after getting a degree in theatre, he was part of the Second City Conservatory in Toronto from 2000-2003. But, his own political awareness grew faster than the non-Indigenous comedy culture around him, so he left. “If I’m pitching a sketch about wanting to get our prime minister into a sweat lodge and the comics who are writing it don’t understand what a sweat lodge is, there is no way the audience is going to get it,” he says.
For McMahon, it’s all part of a long-term project and he’s in it until the end, gathering and telling stories that open up the conversation that could help Canadians understand and move beyond colonization towards truth and then reconciliation.
“I think this type of work—digital media, film, music, art—these are doorways people get to walk through to see us and hear us,” he says. “We have a chance to make an impact, we just need people to pay attention for a little bit. Hear our stories and read our work. I think we’ll find an audience,” he says.
To read more about Ryan McMahon and podcasting, read Erica Ngao’s feature, “The Podcast Evolution,” in the Spring 2017 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the names of Josh Visser and Tomas Urbina and incorrectly stated that Urbina was an executive producer. We apologize for the error. This story has also been updated to include additional details about McMahon’s relationship with Vice.