Rita Joe & Tom Johnson

Celebrating the life of Rita Joe
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Sixteen years ago, Nova Scotia lost a cultural icon and esteemed Mi’kmaw writer, Rita Joe. Her work has been studied across the globe, showcasing the Mi’kmaq language and culture.

Rita was born on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and was orphaned at age ten. She spent several years at Shubenacadie Residential School, unable to speak her language or practice Mi’kmaq culture. Rita spent years reconnecting with her language and culture once she left the residential school.

As an adult, she wrote seven books, and became outspoken on the condition of residential schools for Indigenous youth. Rita’s work had an enormous impact across her own community, and into neighbouring communities as a true rendering of Indigenous peoples’ experience in Canada.

Her daughters often reminisce on their mother’s influence in supporting community members to record their life and experience as part of the Mi’kmaq community.

“She always encouraged our people, the Mi’kmaq people, to write,” said Anne Joe, one of Rita’s daughters.

Rita Joe always stood up in the face of adversity, she claimed her voice and her right to speak. Her daughters describe her as a guiding figure not only for them, but for their community.

“I think of my mother as a trailblazer,” said Frances Sylliboy, another daughter of Rita Joe. “If you look back from the 70s until now, we have come a long way.”

Tom Johnson is Executive Director of the Eskasoni Fish & Wildlife Commission, who is also working on a language reclamation project for the community. Tom has always shared Rita’s love for community building, and he uses all his spare time to empower his community, through Rita’s lessons.

“It’s an honour to have the province recognize Rita Joe, and to come into the community to celebrate with family,” said Tom Johnson.

With Rita’s recognition during Nova Scotia’s Heritage Month, Tom hopes that it can empower communities to revive lost languages, and dive back into First Nations and communities’ lost culture.

Funding for heritage and culture is a vital part of the cultural activities for Heritage Month. Support4Culture has made the Nova Scotia Heritage Day celebrations honouring the life and legacy of Rita Joe possible.