ST. PETERS BAY – Junior Peter-Paul's Mi'kmaq ancestors would have been able to build a wigwam in a day, he said.
That's because whole communities would work together to build a single Indigenous shelter. When Peter-Paul was asked to build a traditional wigwam at Greenwich, P.E.I. National Park this summer, he knew he had a task ahead of him, starting with clearing out the build site's 'thick bush.'
"It was a mess," the heritage presenter for the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. said.
But he wasn't in a rush, as the process gave him a chance to feel more connected to his ancestors. He also had some help from P.E.I.'s Confederation Players in clearing out the trees.
This year's players visited Peter-Paul's wigwam to check out his progress a few weeks later on Aug. 28. Typically, the players are found in downtown Charlottetown each summer wearing Victorian-era garb for the Confederation Centre's immersive tour program, communications manager Fraser McCallum said.
"(But) it's been a very different summer for them," he said. "Not as much croquet."
Sarah Denman-Wood, the centre's associate producer, said they've been making changes to how the program represents the people during that era of Island history since the program started 31 years ago.
"1989 was a very different world than 2020," she said.
Since the program couldn't operate as usual this year due to COVID-19, the centre decided it was a good time for the players to take a step back and spend a summer researching P.E.I.'s lesser-heard voices – such as women, Indigenous people and Black people.
"And delve more into their history," Denman-Wood said. "It's so important for us to listen."
For third-year player Jacob Rollwage, a summer of research was very different from his past summers of re-enactment. He focused primarily on the rich history of immigrants who settled on P.E.I. in the late-19th century, such as the Chinese and Lebanese communities, he said.
The goal of their research is for future players to move away from solely acting as those involved in 1864's Charlottetown Conference and broaden it out to provide a wider variety of voices and tours to act out.
"We comprised a list of new characters," Rollwage said. "There'll be a more diverse group."
This is what brought the players to Greenwich. Peter-Paul's work was a chance to immerse themselves in Indigenous culture and learn from it.
"It made history come alive. Which is what our program is trying to do," Denham-Wood said.
Peter-Paul had spent a chunk of time harvesting the tree wood and bark needed to put his wigwam together. He then spent about three weeks building it, and it's expected to be finished next week.
He recently spent the night in it and woke up early to perform a sunrise ceremony to the sound of nature. His favourite part of the process has been talking with park-goers about the history and the process, as well as letting them help out a bit.
Park-goers have been responding very positively, with some telling him that they wish the area had always showcased its Mi'kmaq heritage.
"In my heart, it's always been," he said. "I feel safer here. I feel comfortable here."
He's very grateful to be doing this work for his ancestors in a place that they once lived, and for the collaboration of Parks Canada and the Confederation Centre of the Arts, he said.
Riley James Bernard, a Mi'kmaq man who worked with the players, was also grateful for the research done to uncover more P.E.I. voices. There were many highlights over the eight-week program, but the opportunity to help build something that shares the voice of his ancestors was certainly a standout, he said.
"I feel an immense pride to know our people have always been here. They never left."
Daniel Brown, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Guardian