NACO’s Canada 150 tour: Bringing Rita Joe’s words home

NACO brought I Lost My Talk to Eskasoni. Photo: Peter Robb

ESKASONI FIRST NATION, Cape Breton Island • If reconciliation is about a journey of understanding then some very emotional steps were taken on Wednesday.

The Eskasoni First Nation is the largest Mi’kmaw community in Atlantic Canada and it hosted the National Arts Centre Orchestra and 250 kids from across Cape Breton in two days of music,  education and celebration.

For George Paul, who works for the band council, the hope of this gathering which took months to organize, is that those who came to Eskasoni, most for the first time, will take away a positive impression. And the other takeaway is the fact that the community could host such an event, which attracted national and provincial attention, without a hitch.

And that’s what happened in the concert in the Dan K. Stevens Arena, a place normally reserved for a hockey game or two. NACO performed to an audience of students, elders, dignitaries, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and several survivors of residential schools. The attendance of these individuals was especially poignant.

There was hardly a dry eye among the audience of about 2,000 inside the arena when Alexander Shelley lowered his baton at the end of I Lost My Talk, a setting of a poem by Rita Joe, the Mi’kmaw poet laureate and the reason NACO was in Eskasoni on Tuesday evening and Wednesday. The music by Edmonton composer John Estacio, who said, after the concert that he was deeply moved by the playing of his composition.

“I never thought it would get here,” he said. As Estacio was, members of NACO were equally moved. Christopher Millard, principal bassoon, said the power of the piece has been emotionally engaging the orchestra since it was being prepared for the world premiere in NACO’s last season. The music is accompanied by a dance film choreographed by Santee Smith and the poem is spoken by actor Monique Mojica. The concert also featured the fourth movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and a violin solo by James Ehnes who played the third movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.

But there’s no doubt I Lost My Talk and a song featuring hometown girl Kalolin Johnson were the highlights.

Georgina Doucette was at residential school for eight years and was a friend of Rita Joe’s. She addressed the audience before the performance began. Afterwards she pronounced herself well-satisfied.

“It was awesome. I have never witnessed anything like this in my lifetime.” It really paid honour to Rita Joe, she said.

The performance also means a lot personally to Ann Joe, Rita’s youngest daughter.

“It means a lot to us that people are still reading her work. And this show is making her work more well known. … It’s like the world is finally catching up to her message. She wrote this poem in 1987, that’s 30 years ago.

This is a proud community. It runs its own commercial fishing business and is actively promoting the tourist trade. It’s also a successful graduating 80 per cent of students from high school with many going on to university.

Rita Joe played a role in that. This mother of 10, eight of her own and two foster children, “was writing and she got published,” Ann Joe said in an interview on Wednesday morning. “She used to go around to the schools. She came to our school and she would talk to the kids and tell about our culture. She went across Nova Scotia and Canada. She was always sharing her culture.

“She would read poems and stories just to show what Mi’kmaw people are like.”

For Ann Joe, reconciliation between indigenous peoples and the broader society is “possible.”

“It’s up to each person. People can talk and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s their problem when they talk about residential schools. Why don’t they get over it. That’s in the past.

“Part of what this show does, is it puts you in the mind of a 15 year old girl in this school and it’s like a prison and they are not letting her speak her language.

“The fear she must have been feeling and the confusion. As the poem goes on it takes us to the past and the present. … At the end making peace with it. There is hope at the end.

“I think she would like that. Pain is pain. It doesn’t matter what colour you are, what race you are or what age you are. Art is created by people trying to make sense of their pain and get over it.”
It’s about sharing stories, she said. “This is what happened to me. Can you relate to what happened to me and a lot of times you can.”

Ann Joe has been speaking for her mother, who died in 2007, and discovering how important she was and remains.

“I never had to speak in front of people. After she died there was a poetry festival in Halifax and they were naming her poet of the year. She died before she collect her award. I said I’ll do it. It was my first time speaking in public.

“I read one of her poems. It was hard to get through but everybody was applauding and snapping their fingers. I felt the love from the crowd. I got through poem. I went off stage. After I felt this euphoria. ‘Now I know why you did this,’ I said to her.

Ann Joe lives in her mother’s two story split home with robin’s egg blue siding. It’s right next door to the original home where she was raised.

“In the last 10 years of her life, Rita ran a craft shop and would sell bead work and baskets and that kind of stuff. We used to get tourists all spring and summer and fall. She loved people, she loved making friends.

“It’s really special.”

It’s also special for Kalolin Johnson, an Eskasoni high school student who performed the song We Shall Remain with the orchestra.

Johnson is one of those graduating high school. She’ll be off to study sciences at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“I love music but it’s always just been a hobby. I’m passionate about it but I have a good understanding of sciences which I really love.

The song was written by Kalolin, her music teacher Carter Chiasson and her father Tom, who had the initial idea from a documentary about indigenous culture.

“He loved how it captured how indigenous people used to live. He wants people to think about that.

In the end the song is a tribute to the elders of Eskasoni and of the Mi’kmaw nation, she said.

Eskasoni First Nation Chief Leroy Denny knew Rita Joe when he was a student.

“She was a Mi’kmaw icon. Her gentle poetry brought honesty and respect.

She was a celebrity and it meant a lot for us.”

In this sesquicentennial year, Denny says: I just want to make sure that in the next 150 years we are not going to go through what our ancestors went through. This is a fresh start.”


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.