CAPE BRETON BUREAU
The Chronicle Herald
ESKASONI — Sister Dorothy Moore remembers learning English together with Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe.
The pair met as young girls at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, where they were forced to stop speaking their native language.
“We both learned to speak English at the same time,” said Moore. “I would say from that, Rita valued both languages; particularly the Mi’kmaq language.”
Learning a second language gave Joe a wider stage for her future writings, which, in turn, gave the world a glimpse into the life of a Mi’kmaq person, she said.
“I think Rita would not be known as a poet laureate if she did not have the two languages of Mi’kmaq and English,” said the Membertou elder.
“She was able to express fully to the outside world what it meant to be a Mi’kmaq person.”
But time spent speaking English has had its consequences. First Nations groups are working to revitalize the language.
“We are totally overpowered by the English language and it’s up to us, I think, to recognize that we just don’t want to lose our language,” Moore said.
“If we really truly believe what Rita promoted in her life was to continue our way of Mi’kmaq — that way of Mi’kmaq is speaking the language.”
Born on Whycocomagh, and living her adult life in Eskasoni, Joe was an acclaimed writer who authored the poem I Lost My Talk, about her experience in losing her language at the residential school.
A member of the Order of Canada and a mother of 10 children, Joe died in hospital on March 20, 2007. Today, she will be honoured as close to 300 students gather at Chief Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni for the third annual Rita Joe Memorial Literacy Day.
This year, schools from Waycobah and Wagmatcook will take part. Chris Gallant, an English teacher at the school, said 40 students submitted entries in this year’s writing contest.
“We’re seeing a lot of the same themes that Rita Joe wrote about,” said Gallant. “We have a lot of cultural things coming up in the writings — and the quality of writing seems to be going up every year, which is really nice to see.”
Students will share some of their contest submissions before moving on to workshops with local authors, songwriters and actors, he said.
“The most important thing is that they gain confidence in their own abilities in writing and that they realize that we all have talents and that we can move forward to develop these talents.”
For Moore, she said it’s her “greatest wish” that there be more writing from her people and that their children will read it.
“I so value Rita’s life, I so value what she contributed to us and I so value what we have in written form that Rita has given to us.
“What she has written years ago continues to stay alive within our world — not only here — but everywhere. And within our own souls, I think that’s the wonder, that’s the beauty of being able to write. Being able to put your thoughts down, being able to put your feelings down on paper.”
As for seeing a new generation share its thoughts and experiences through writing, Moore feels a sense of calm.
“That gives me hope in knowing that, indeed, the light is still lit relating to the value of who we are as Mi’kmaq. Without the language, we are nobody.”