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Mi’kmaw poet Rita Joe is Heritage Day 2023 honouree

Events around Nova Scotia will recognize Joe's achievements

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Mi'kmaq poet the late Rita Joe
caption The late elder Rita Joe, who was known as the Mi'kmaw poet laureate, is being recognized by Nova Scotia as the 2023 Heritage Day honoree.
George Paul

This year’s Heritage Day in Nova Scotia honours the late elder Rita Joe, who was known as a “gentle warrior” and the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaq nation.

The day is marked each year on the third Monday in February, which this year is Feb. 20.

Rita Joe, who died in 2007, was a Shubenacadie Indian Residential School survivor and a mother of 10 who started writing in the late 1960s.

Her first anthology Poems of Rita Joe was published in 1978. More titles include: Song of Eskasoni; L’nu Indian We’re Called; Kelusultiek; Song of Rita Joe; For the Children; and I Lost My Talk. She was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1989. In 1992 she became a member of the Queen’s Privy Council. Joe received honorary doctorates from several universities.

Three Mi’kmaw writers – Tiffany Morris, Danica Roache and Raymond Sewell – were commissioned by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia to create writing inspired by Joe.

“She’s done so much … I owe so much of my career to her, even though I’ve never met her,” said Mi’kmaw poet Rebecca Thomas, while she emceed a Rita Joe event for Indigenous students at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery on Feb. 10.

At the gallery, Thomas recited Joe’s famous poem I Lost My Talk, before reading her own response to the poem called I’m Finding My Talk, which was published as a children’s book, illustrated by Mi’kmaw artist Pauline Young in 2019.

Roache shared with the students how Joe’s work influenced her.

“Rita Joe began her writing career after she became a mother … it’s encouraging to know that she thrived … she was able to write these meaningful, long-lasting works, while also dealing with the mundane everyday tasks of parenting.”

Morris shared her writing Family Heirlooms. She said it was rooted in her own experience, like Joe’s, of writing at the kitchen table with children surrounding her.

caption A 1990 photograph of Rita Joe holding her proclamation of the Order of Canada.
Beaton Institute Archives

Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton Island, the province’s largest Mi’kmaw community, will host a celebration in her honour on Feb. 16. While Joe was born and raised in We’koqma’q First Nation, she lived in her husband Frank Joe’s community of Eskasoni.

George Paul has been organizing the event.

“It’s significant, because I don’t think we’ve ever had a celebration for her like this before,” said Paul in a phone interview.

He said it’s “sad” that people don’t often get full recognition until after they are gone and hopes Joe’s legacy will continue to  “empower and inspire” all Indigenous writers and the people of Eskasoni.

I Lost My Talk

I lost my talk

The talk you took away.

When I was a little girl

At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:

I speak like you

I think like you

I create like you

The scrambled ballad, about my word.

Two ways I talk

Both ways I say,

Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,

Let me find my talk

So I can teach you about me.

Rita Joe events:

Feb. 16 – Rita Joe Eskasoni Celebration, 5-8 p.m at Allison Bernard Memorial High School, 4363 Shore Rd., Eskasoni. The agenda includes a feast, slideshow, video, music, artwork display, and readings from local writers Hannah Battiste, Lindsay Marshall and Joe’s great-granddaughter Nikhea Bernard.

Feb. 20 – Heritage Day

The following are open and most offer free admission:

  • Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax
  • Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax
  • Museum of Natural History, Halifax
  • Museum of Industry, Stellarton
  • Fundy Geological Museum, Parrsboro
  • Ross Farm Museum, New Ross

Feb. 22 – Our History Would Be Different: A celebration of Rita Joe, the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaq people. Writers who presented on Feb. 10 will be sharing their words a second time, at the Halifax Public Library on Spring Garden Road, at 6:30 p.m. 

March 1 – Our History Would Be Different: A celebration of Rita Joe, the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaq people Writers who presented on Feb. 10 will be sharing their words a third time, at Millbrook First Nation near Truro.

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About the author

Crystal Greene

Crystal Greene (she/her) is originally from Winnipeg, where she lived most of her life. She now lives in Kjipuktuk/Halifax with her toddler....

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