February 20, 2023
2023 Honouree: Rita Joe
Elder Rita (Bernard) Joe, a member of the We’koqma’q Mi’kmaq Community and published author, was instrumental in paving the way for other Mi’kmaq authors. Her greatest wish was to see more writings would come from her people and “that the children would read it”.
Elder Rita lost both parents at an early age and spent several years in foster care before attending the Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie at the age of twelve. She would suffer the hardships experienced from the residential school that would eventually lead her to begin writing. She wanted to share her experiences through writing and celebrate Mi’kmaq culture with a focus on language.
In her late teens, Elder Rita moved to Boston where she met her husband Frank Joe and would go on to raise a family of 10 children.
In the mid 70’s, is when Elder Rita’s written work interested the publishing world. She wanted to change the negative attitudes encountered in her life’s journey, and started with writing Poems of Rita Joe. She would go on to have several more books published including: Song of Eskasoni, L’nu Indian We’re Called, Kelusultiek (we speak), Song of Rita Joe, For the Children, and one of her most famous books, I Lost My Talk.
Elder Rita’s words of wisdom would inspire the country and lead her to receiving an Order of Canada in 1989. Then in 1992, she would become a member of the Queens Privy Council. In between times, she would receive Honorary Doctorates from Mount Saint Vincent University and University College of Cape Breton. She would receive an Aboriginal Achievement Award and be named Poet Laureate of the Mi’kmaq.
Elder Rita was given the title of “Gentle Warrior” and that would become the title of a poem written about her.
Due to a health condition, Elder Rita passed away at the age of 74, but her legacy has never been forgotten. A Mi’kmaq Anthology – Volume Two was published in celebration of her achievements, a Halifax/Dartmouth ferry was named after her and, in 2002, she would be one of four Elders recognized during Mi’kmaq History Month by the city of Halifax.
Elder Rita’s greatest wish has come true by inspiring many other Mi’kmaq authors to continue writing poems, stories, written words and plays. Along with inspiring a Mi’kmaq writer to publish “I’m Finding My Talk”, the National Truth & Reconciliation Commission also used her written work “I Lost my Talk”, in their report. Her inspiring words and love for writing is not forgotten and the following poem continues to inspire many people.
I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe
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.
Photo: Eskasoni First Nation/George Paul