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A second chance

Cross Examined
|Written By Mallory Hendry
A second chance
Photo: Dustin Rabin

Candy Palmater says she learned some valuable lessons in her journey from practising law to being a high-profile comedienne

Candy Palmater has a go-to joke she often uses to open her comedy routine. It goes something like this:

“With a name like Candy, clearly, my parents had a vision when I was born that some day I was going to be a stripper or a hooker, and I became a lawyer so they weren’t that far off,” Palmater says with a laugh. “That’s my little ‘ba boom chhh.’”

It’s true — Candy is not your typical lawyer’s name, but then again Palmater is not your typical lawyer.

“I didn’t fit the mould in many ways,” she explains, giving an example of her tongue piercing people noticed when she was practising. “I always felt like I had my shoes on the wrong feet… Life as a lawyer fit me like a bad suit and it didn’t take me long to figure that out.”

The 47-year-old Palmater has tattoos on her arms and legs; her long dress is a bold, colourful print. She is friendly and low-key, the youngest of seven children harking from the north of New Brunswick.

Palmater makes her living giving speeches, and occasionally writing for award shows or other TV programs, but she has put all that on hold to tackle her latest project: The Candy Show, her afternoon program on CBC Radio One running Monday to Friday which ran this past summer.

It’s been a long ride to this point, but Palmater says her resilience comes from a great belief in second chances and knowing how to get up.

After raising six kids in alcoholism and poverty in Point La Nim, N.B., her father got sober and her parents decided to have a so-called “redemption baby.” Palmater was born into a “family of adults that showered me with love,” she says.

Her dad passed away 51 years sober — a great example it’s never too late to make a change — and Palmater’s eldest brother Billy also taught her something she’s never forgotten.

Palmater remembers being all dressed up in a bomber jacket and blue glitter ski boots, waiting on her first ski lesson. The first thing Billy did was push her down into the snow.

“He said, ‘First I’m going to teach you how to get up, because falling is inevitable . . . but if you know how to get up, you’ll ski without fear.’ Now when I was four I thought he was talking about skiing — 18 years after his death I realize he gave me the greatest life lesson. I live life without fear, because I know how to get up.”

In her mid-twenties, Palmater found herself casting around for what to do next. She always had a sense of fairness, of “even-stevens,” that she identified as a sense of justice.

“I started thinking a lot about law because it gives a voice to people who don’t have a voice,” she says, noting how when the system failed Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man from Nova Scotia convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and imprisoned for 10 years in 1971, it haunted her.

At 27, Palmater went to Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax and loved the experience. Always proud of her Mi’kmaq heritage, she was president of the Dalhousie Aboriginal Law Students Association and also the first aboriginal law student in Canada to be valedictorian of the graduating class.

After graduating in 1999 and being called to the bar in 2000, Palmater ended up at a corporate law firm in Halifax — the now-defunct Patterson Palmer Hunt and Murphy — where she lasted two years.

Palmater cites the zero-per-cent hire-back rate for Mi’kmaq people — a statistic she changed — as a reason for going into corporate law. She also admits to “drinking the Kool Aid” while in law school, but she ultimately found the firm wasn’t the place for her because “there’s no advocacy there.”

“My speaking career had just started to morph and I was noticing more and more I’m very happy when I’m on stage behind a microphone and I’m very unhappy when I’m in my office.”

The final straw was when Palmater’s father had a heart attack and was in hospital waiting for open-heart surgery. She recounts how when she arrived at the hospital, her family was furious. A client of Palmater’s had tracked down where she was going and called her father’s hospital room. After speaking to the client, Palmater’s father had to be sedated because — in his confused, medicated state — he thought the call meant Palmater was somehow lost.

“A few things like that made me think, ‘This isn’t the place for me,’” Palmater says.

So Palmater left the firm, and her career as a lawyer, while also ending a 12-year relationship with a man and telling her family she was gay. It was a tumultuous time in her life, and Palmater needed a clean break.

“If I’d gone to legal aid or some kind of foreign service right out of law school, maybe that would have worked for me, but at that point . . . I was so disillusioned I just felt I’ve got to step out on a totally different path.”

After leaving the firm, Palmater went to work for the government of Nova Scotia in the department of education, while telling people she was a comedian — even though she had never performed comedy before. She performed for the first time — for free, because she “didn’t know if I’d even be any good at it” — at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission women’s forum and got a standing ovation. So she left her government job to “make my run at living on my wit.”

Palmater pitched The Candy Show to The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, where “it ran for five seasons, won multiple awards, it was amazing,” Palmater says.

Despite landing far from a career in the law, Palmater has no regrets and says she wouldn’t trade her law degree for all the money in the world.

“It’s the most valuable formal thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I’m a very passionate and fiery person. . . . Law school really taught me that beating on my chest and saying, ‘I’m right, get on board’ is not the way to do it. So that serves me every day, in every way, in everything I do.”

She’s also able to handle her own contracts and says, “People just have a certain level of respect for a law degree.”

“Practising law . . . was soul crushing for me, but that’s because it doesn’t suit my personality — that’s not because there’s anything wrong with practising law,” she stresses. She adds that if anything could tempt her back to practising, it would be volunteering her time to an innocence project once she retires.

After Jian Ghomeshi lost his job at the CBC, Palmater was approached to audition for the new host, but it was agreed she needed a show to fit her, not the other way around. She was told if she moved to Toronto, they could work something out. After postponing her move for a month — during which she shot season 10 of Trailer Park Boys, playing a part written specifically for her alongside the likes of Tom Arnold and Snoop Dogg — Palmater came to Toronto last summer, filled in on Q for then-host Shad’s vacation leave and got her own show this past summer.

“Bodda boom, bodda bing, here I am now trying something brand new,” Palmater says. “Radio is different than TV. It’s new to me, and I’m loving it.”

When asked for advice to fellow lawyers, Palmater doesn’t hesitate. “Don’t be romanced by the money!”

she exclaims. “Make sure you’re doing it because there are things about it that bring you great joy.” 

Palmater may have taken her own advice and walked away from practising law, but she still carries with her that sense of justice.

“Through television and radio, it’s given me a bigger microphone, a bigger voice and a bigger opportunity to be able to ask for and demand fairsies — even-stevens.”

  • Lawyer

    Vivienne Stewart
    A great article about a woman who made some choices and landed in just the right spot!

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