The Canoe Project challenges audiences to laugh, learn, and grow

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Written by Labrador-born comedian, writer and actor Mark Harnett, The Canoe Project is a new six-part TV series that explores Canada’s colonial history through a comedic lens.

Matt Carter

Comedy’s role as a tool for social change is no laughing matter. As a means of communication with wide appeal, stand up specials and comedic dramas tackling important issues are not uncommon.  But in a world where entertainment options are dictated largely by American production companies and the streaming services they serve, we as Canadians are quite limited when it comes to stories that relate to the many culture issues that have become part of our identity. Through his new series, The Canoe Project, Labrador-born comedian, writer and actor Mark Harnett hopes to change all that.

The Canoe Project made its debut on September 30, Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and the series is now streaming through Fibe TV1.

“This show is loosely based on Mark’s experience growing up in Northern Labrador, in a little community of 400 people,” said Miramichi-born comedian Jimmy MacKinley, who co-stars alongside Harnett in the series. “He had a bit of a tough upbringing before moving to the big city centre that is St. John’s, Newfoundland. He dealt with a lot of racism and stereotypes.”

In this new six-part series, MacKinley plays the character of Richard, a Newfoundland government official who blackmails Harnett’s character Canoe into leaving his home and moving to the big city. By indoctrinating an Indigenous man into “the modern world”, Richard hopes to score a big promotion. 

In some ways The Canoe Project tells a story older than Canada. It’s basically Colonialism 101 and a story closely tied to our national narrative. Which begs the question: Is this the right fit of a comedy series?

“It was definitely something I thought a lot about,” said MacKinley. “As a comedian and an actor, I was excited to take on this role. But I’m not going to lie, there were a few lines of dialog that I was a bit hesitant about. Playing a character who has horrible morals is a tricky one to play. It’s a character I can’t really relate to. 

“There’s obviously a serious undercurrent running through all six episodes. But Mark wanted to mix his experiences with comedy because he’s a comedian. He thought why not highlight a serious issue but tell it through a comedic lens.”

MacKinley and Harnett have been friends for almost a decade and MacKinley credits their friendship and the many stand up shows they performed together as a big part of what made his experience filming The Canoe Project a memorable one. 

“The whole experience had its challenges,” he said. “But the cast and crew were terrific.”

“Mark is a really good friend of mine. He moved to Fredericton in 2014 and we started doing stand up shows together at Wilser’s Room. We did a lot of shows together around the Maritimes and so we tried to incorporate a lot from those experiences into making this TV show. As comedians, I think it’s our job to take those risks. Sometimes we walk the line and at times we cross it. In those situations, hopefully we learn from our mistakes. 

“If we can bridge a gap in our culture and make people laugh at the same time, that’s what we’re all about,” said MacKinley. “I think this show lands right on the mark. It’s a story that is important to tell.”

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