Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe honoured on Heritage Day in Nova Scotia

Rita Joe is shown holding the proclamation of her induction to the Order of Canada in 1989. (Submitted by the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University - image credit)
Rita Joe is shown holding the proclamation of her induction to the Order of Canada in 1989. (Submitted by the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University - image credit)

A Mi'kmaw poet is being remembered for her writings that shone a spotlight on the lasting effects of Canada's residential school system.

This year's Heritage Day in Nova Scotia pays tribute to Rita Joe.

The late Cape Breton woman was born in Whycocomagh, N.S., in 1932, and later moved to Eskasoni First Nation.

Throughout her life, Joe wrote powerful stories about the history of residential schools and the identity of the Mi'kmaq.

Friends, family and scholars say Joe was a trailblazer who spoke about the loss of Indigenous languages and traditions.

"She first started writing a column for the Micmac News and then she started writing poetry and she started doing recordings," said Ann Joe, Rita Joe's youngest daughter. "She would go to the elders and record legends and stories and it was like she was trying to spotlight our culture and uplift our culture.

"When she first started back in the 70s, there wasn't much positive representation of us out there. We were getting killed on TV, on the westerns, and they were still dealing with the fallout of residential schools, too. It was kind of a sad time."

Relearning her language

Rita Joe endured a difficult childhood, including the loss of both parents. She spent time in foster care.

Like many Indigenous children, Joe was forbidden to speak her native language at the Shubenacadie residential school that she was forced to attend. When she completed her schooling, she had to relearn her language by talking to people who spoke Mi'kmaw.

She published her first collection of poetry in 1978, and she went on to write six more books and earn many honours, including recognition as the poet laureate of the Mi'kmaq.

Her rise to fame spiked in the late 1980s with the publication of I Lost My Talk, a poem that reflects on her Shubenacadie residential school experience and the loss of her mother tongue.

Submitted by George Paul
Submitted by George Paul

"One of the things my mother used to say was … 'I wanted to lift up the sad eyes of my people, and I wanted to show them that their culture is beautiful, that they are worthy of celebration, all those things.'

"Even if you look at the poem, I Lost My Talk. There's a lot of diplomacy in there. And it was like she was trying to figure out a way to … approach the majority but she was doing it in a very conciliatory way. She wasn't angry. She wasn't militant, she wasn't confrontational."

Gordon E. Smith, a professor of ethnomusicology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., worked with Rita Joe for 15 years beginning in the early 1990s when he was asked to create song sheets for her poems.

Joe eventually went on to be appointed to the Order of Canada in 1989 and was named a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada in 1992.

He said Joe always emphasized the positive. "She really felt … the only way that Mi'kmaw people, Indigenous peoples would get to a point of healing and reconciliation would be to focus on the good in life, the good in people."

Submitted by the Native Women's Association of Canada
Submitted by the Native Women's Association of Canada

An artist raised in Truro, N.S., is now doing her part to elevate Joe's message and her story.

Alex Beals, who is based in Toronto, has designed a $20 bill featuring Joe along with floral Mi'kmaw beadwork in the background.

Beals's work was commissioned by the Native Women's Association of Canada, as part of an initiative known as "Change the Bill."

Call to action

The artwork project is a call to action that shows what Canadian money would look like if Indigenous women were given better representation in the mainstream media.

"I really want people to see this and how important representation is and how important Rita is as well, and her journey and understand her story," said Beals. "I just feel like it's very important to put such a powerful woman on the bill."

Beals said she chose Joe as inspiration for the banknote because of her resilience in recovering her culture and celebrating it.

To date, Canada has not yet featured an Indigenous woman on any of its banknotes.

Ann Joe said her family would love to see their mother and grandmother featured on a bill, in addition to being recognized as part of a provincial holiday.

"That would be something," Ann Joe said. "I'll have to see it to believe it, but at this rate anything is possible."