Ottawa·Creator Network

She lived in a motel for 3 years as a kid. Here's how she turned it into standup comedy

Comedian Janelle Niles shares how she turned the bleakest moments in her life — like when her family was homeless and lived in a motel in Ottawa’s east end — into a career in comedy, in this CBC Ottawa Creator Network piece.

'I don’t want to appear ungrateful, but I have notes,' jokes Janelle Niles in standup act

Ice cold milk: Janelle Niles explains how her strange dairy addiction helped her survive homelessness

2 months ago
Duration 8:08
How a 36-year-old comedian dealt with homelessness living in a hotel and turned the bleakest chapters in her life into a career on stage. She shared her story in this CBC Ottawa Creator Network piece titled "Got Housing?

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It was one of Janelle Niles's bleakest moments — and so she decided to turn it into a joke.

"Some kids count sheep to sleep. I was counting bedbugs," quipped the 36-year-old about being a homeless preteen and sharing a motel room with her family, as part of a set at a Yuk Yuk's in Ottawa.

Niles was 12 when her family was evicted, forcing them to move into a motel in Ottawa's east end while they awaited social housing. 

In 2019, the comedian began bringing challenging moments from her past to the stage. Since then, Niles, who is a Black, Mi'kmaw, two-spirit woman, has cracked up audiences across North America and created the Got Land variety show highlighting Indigenous entertainers. 

Now, five years into her career, she's sharing that journey in a piece she produced in collaboration with CBC Ottawa's Creator Network.

For her, reframing upsetting childhood memories through standup comedy allows her to take control of her own narrative.

"I've learned that tragedy plus time equals comedy," said Niles. "If I can make it funny, it loses its power over me." 

Growing up in a motel

In front of a packed audience, Niles shared her family's journey from Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia to Ottawa.

She recalls taking the the long train ride to Ontario with her younger sister Lexis and her twin Jileen and what it was like surviving the ensuing years of financial hardship together.

"Our mother fell through the cracks," Jilleen Niles said, explaining that after their mother lost her job, the family of four was placed on Ottawa's housing wait-list and moved into a single motel room.

A comedian smiles at a table in a diner with a glass of milk in her hand. She's wearing a three piece suit.
Five years into her comedy career, Janelle Niles says she's picked up some tricks of the trade, like how to command respect from an audience by performing in a three-piece suit — something she learned by watching sleek-suited comedians like Steve Harvey and Bernie Mac in the Kings of Comedy special. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

When Janelle thinks back to those first few weeks in the room, she cringes at the thought of the smell of stale cigarettes and the feel of the scratchy brown sheets.

She still remembers walking into the motel room and thinking one thing: where's the fridge?

'Milk was my security blanket'

On stage, Janelle explained why a homeless 10-year-old was so focused on this question.

"When you're living in chaos, the first thing you ask yourself is, 'What do I have control over?'" she explained.

"Some kids resort to drugs or alcohol to cope. I resorted to my strange addiction — milk."

Niles says she'd learned from a young age to cope with the stress of her family's financial instability by slowing down and drinking a cold glass of dairy.

"Milk was my security blanket and my medicine. It soothed me," she recalled. "But how was I going to keep my milk cold with no refrigerator?" 

A comedian on stage with a microphone during a show.
Niles on stage at Yuk Yuk's where she shared what it was like growing up in a motel. (Mitchell Zilberg)

To manage, Niles would voyage to the motel's ice machine every two hours to replenish the cubes in the sink where she kept the milk. Her twin Jilleen often joined her and recalled the adult situations they'd encounter along the way.

"The motel room was at least six or seven doors down from where you get ice. So you're passing these doors, you're hearing screaming, you're seeing scantily clad people and drug paraphernalia was scattered on the ground," she recalled.

"There were police raids that happened while we were there. It was just not a safe environment for children at all." 

An animated clip of a young gurl walking from the ice machine to her motel room. She passes other hotel residents and two duelling cockroaches.
Animator Tanya Desbarats worked with CBC Ottawa's Creator Network to bring a scene from Niles's past to life. Here, a 10-year-old Janelle carries a bucket of ice to her motel room. (Animation by Tanya Desbarats)

At night, the other residents made it hard for the family to get a good night's sleep.

"We'd hear domestic disputes, slamming and banging of doors, sirens … lots of screaming and yelling, it did not stop. Then we wake up at seven o'clock to get ready to go to school and it would all start again," said Jilleen. 

The first thing Janelle would do after a restless night was take her milk out of the sink and pour it over her cereal. For a brief moment she felt calm. 

"I learned to control the uncontrollable by finding something to distract me from my hellscape," she recalled.

Twin sisters sit closely on a tan couch as children.
Janelle's twin Jilleen, right, said on the rare occasions when the family had bigger non-perishable food, they'd move the milk and ice to the bathtub, which caused new challenges because they also used the tub to wash clothes. (Submitted by Janelle Niles)

Hotel hilarity

It was also in the motel that Janelle found her love of comedy, turning on the TV at the end of each day to devour hours of standup.

Richard Prior and Paul Mooney were some of her favourites and she remembers being fascinated by how they could transform their tumultuous childhoods into comedic material.

"I never thought all of those comedy shows that we would watch were moulding my sister into the comedian she is today," reflected Jilleen Niles.

A moving image of a woman trying to drink milk from a straw but missing.
Niles says it was challenging to grow up in a small motel room with her sisters and mother. 'I remember getting my menstrual cycle or my 'moon time,' in a motel. You have no privacy,' she remembered. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"I am so happy she found a way to laugh through trauma. Humour is one of the Grandfather teachings and Janelle is harnessing that power to heal," added Jilleen, who now works as a mental health intake worker at Ottawa's Wabano Centre for Indigenous Health. 

"My Black side and my Indigenous side, we heal through humour. It's just part of our culture. I was born to do this," said Janelle. 

Janelle Niles explains how she turned one of the bleakest chapters in her life into a career on stage. She shares her story in this CBC Ottawa Creator Network piece.

Got housing

At Yuk Yuk's, Niles closed her set by explaining how her family eventually left the motel.

"And then one day,  just like when we left Nova Scotia, Mom said, "Pack up your stuff. We got housing," Niles said  about the move to Ottawa Community Housing after a three-year wait.

When she looks back on her time at the motel, Niles says she sees a strong young girl trying to make sense of a difficult situation.

After her performance wrapped, Niles exited the stage to the sound of applause and treated herself to her favourite dairy beverage.

"I am forever grateful now to open my fridge and grab a tall glass of homogenized milk," she said, taking a big gulp.

Two side by side photos. The first is someone holding a video camera on his shoulder. The second is a headshot of an animator.
Mitchell Zilberg, left, is a videographer and producer who specializes in shooting live standup comedy using multiple cameras. He shot the on-stage portion of this Creator Network piece. Tanya Henriquez Desbarat, right, is an animator and illustrator based in Brockville, Ont., who contributed the animated portions of the piece. (Submitted by Mitchell Zilberg and Tanya Henriquez Desbarats )


Ash Abraham

CBC Ottawa Cross-Platform Producer and Reporter

Ash Abraham is a producer and reporter with CBC's Creator Network and Content Diversification project. She also contributes to Ottawa Morning and All in a Day.