Cape Breton Women Series: Mrs. Rita Joe, P.C., C.M.


June 21st, 2012

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators,

On the day I am blue, I go again to the wood where the tree is swaying, Arms touching you like a friend, And the sound of the wind so alone like I am;

Whispers here, whispers there, Come and just be my friend.

These words were found on Rita Joe's typewriter on March 20, 2007. They are the opening to her unfinished poem October Song, her last poem before she lost her battle with Parkinson's disease at the age of 75.

Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak again about another influential Cape Breton woman. She was born Rita Bernard in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton Island. She was the daughter of Joseph and Annie Bernard. When Rita was only 5 years old, her mother passed away; and at the age of 10, she was orphaned and bounced around from foster home to foster home.

Hoping to get an education and to better herself, Rita chose to attend the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School on mainland Nova Scotia. She stayed there until the eighth grade. It turned out not to be the experience she had hoped for. Rita recalled being taunted every day at the school and being told, "You are no good."

In 1954, Rita married Frank Joe, whom she had met in Boston. They returned to Cape Breton Island and settled on the Eskasoni Reserve. Together, they had eight children and adopted two more. Rita began writing in the 1960s and kept it a secret from her husband and children until her work was selected for an award in an annual writing conference held by the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia.

On Cape Breton Island, there was a newsletter called the Micmac News. She began in the early 1970s to write to them periodically. The editor of the newsletter gave her some very good advice and told her to save her poems and to not throw them away. Over time, she gathered and saved a great number of poems, not knowing that one day they would appear in that very publication.

Rita Joe's first book of poetry, Poems of Rita Joe, was published in 1978. Altogether, she has had seven books published, including five poetry anthologies and an autobiography, Song of Rita Joe. Her poetry and activism have become a symbol and source of native pride. She has acted as an ambassador for native arts and culture throughout Canada and the United States. Rita has said of her work:

When I started the first time writing, I was trying to inspire all minorities with my work. To make others happy with my work is what I wanted to do.

This follows her belief that if you write in a positive way or think in a positive way about your culture, it will come back in a positive way.

In 1989, Rita was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 1992, she was made a Member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, one of the few members who were not politicians. The following year she received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Dalhousie University. She was also the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Letters from Cape Breton University and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Mount Saint Vincent University. In 1997, she received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award. She is the subject of a 1993 National Film Board of Canada documentary Song of Eskasoni.

Rita Joe has often been referred to as the poet laureate of the Mi'kmaq people, and her living legacy can be found in classrooms and universities where people continue to study her words.

Honourable senators, I look forward to sharing more inspiring stories with you of influential women from Cape Breton.