'A dream for many': Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre set to open in 2025

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The Mi'kmawey Debert Elders' Advisory Council. From left to right: Judy Bernard Julian, Ernest Johnson, Sister Dorothy Moore, Agnes Potter, Dr. Donald M. Julien, Phyllis Googoo, Florence Walsh, Mary-Ellen Googoo, Gerald C. Toney, Sarah Francis, Maynard Marshall, Mary Rebecca (Becky) Julian. (Portraits by Johanna - image credit)
The Mi'kmawey Debert Elders' Advisory Council. From left to right: Judy Bernard Julian, Ernest Johnson, Sister Dorothy Moore, Agnes Potter, Dr. Donald M. Julien, Phyllis Googoo, Florence Walsh, Mary-Ellen Googoo, Gerald C. Toney, Sarah Francis, Maynard Marshall, Mary Rebecca (Becky) Julian. (Portraits by Johanna - image credit)

A Mi'kmaw cultural centre 20 years in the making hopes to have priceless pieces of First Nations history returned to Nova Scotia when it finally opens its doors in 2025, says its executive director.

Tim Bernard said construction on the Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre could begin as early as 2023 at what's known as the Debert Palaeo-Indian Site, a national historic site considered one of the most important Indigenous archeological areas in North America.

Once open, Bernard said he hopes the centre will help fill gaps in the province's education system when it comes to aspects of Mi'kmaw culture and treaty rights.

"We're seeing first-hand how undereducated not only non-Indigenous people are in the province, but even some of our own community members, about our own history," he said.

"There's always been this disconnect."

Bringing artifacts home

Bernard said the centre is working with its partners at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., to have the Debert collection that was recovered in the 1960s returned to Nova Scotia.

The centre has also reached out to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., to see if it can obtain the original Mi'kmaw hymnal from Sipekne'katik and a prayer book from the Pictou Landing First Nation.

"We're anxious to bring home artifacts that haven't seen this soil for almost 100 years," he said.

The build will be done by AldrichPears Associates of Vancouver and Halifax-based Lydon Lynch Architects in collaboration with Formline Architecture. Formline, also based in Vancouver, is owned by Alfred Waugh, a well-established Chipewyan architect.

Together, the architectural team will work with Indigenous community members to design the space. There are no blueprints drawn up yet, but Bernard said that work is set to begin in the coming days.

'A place of healing and pride'

Waugh said in a recent press release that as an Indigenous architect, working on this project is an honour.

"The Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre will be a place of healing and pride embodying the history and stories of the Mi'kmaw people," said Waugh. "It is an honour to serve the Mi'kmaw people in developing a design that captures the spirit of place and culture."

Eugene Pieczonka, principal shareholder at Lydon Lynch architects, said the firm is thrilled to be part of the project.

"It's not often, especially here in Nova Scotia, that opportunities come along to be involved in projects that are of cultural significance," said Pieczonka, who has 25 years experience in the architecture field.

"Once we discovered the opportunity to associate with Formline Architecture, we thought, 'Wow, this will be a wonderful opportunity to be involved in such an incredibly important topic.'"

$5 million from goal

The project has received more than $25 million with support from the provincial and federal governments, as well as the community itself. It's still $5 million away from its goal.

Bernard said the Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre will be a 30,000-square-foot facility featuring a café, an archive, and five different galleries showcasing artifacts and information about traditional practices and ceremonial regalia. One gallery will tell the history of residential schools in Canada.

Tim Bernard, executive director of the Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, holds up a photo of an Indigenous woman from Millbrook, N.S., in ceremonial regalia. The photo is originally sourced from the National Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Tim Bernard, executive director of the Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, holds up a photo of an Indigenous woman from Millbrook, N.S., in ceremonial regalia. The photo is originally sourced from the National Museum of the American Indian, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.(Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Besides offering educational material, Bernard said the centre will be host to cultural classes and activities.

"We want to engage with our community members, those who are knowledge holders and artisans, to come and share their skills — whether it's making birch bark containers or learning a bit about birch bark canoe-making or tanning various hides like deer or moose hides," said Bernard.

A decades-old dream

Despite the project taking years to come to fruition, Bernard said people never forgot or stopped supporting the initiative. First Nations have been behind the project every step of the way, he said.

"It's been a dream for many for a very long time," he said. "We're definitely excited, but also nervous because this is a huge undertaking."

Pieczonka said after seeing the incredibly detailed document outlining the vision for the centre, they began to really appreciate how big and how important the project is.

"To be part of this journey going forward is a humbling experience already for us," he said.

It's expected there will be 30 people working on the site once construction begins.

A storytelling opportunity

Once its doors open, the centre hopes to welcome up to 60,000 visitors during a busy year. Bernard said the price of admission will likely be anywhere from $10-$12.

Bernard said he hopes the centre will instil a newfound sense of pride in the local Mi'kmaw community.

"Here's an opportunity for us to help tell a more deep story about the Mi'kmaw involvement here for the last 13,500 years," he said.

"It's a story that hasn't been told very well."

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