Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaq artist in Halifax beads poppies to honour veterans

Killa Atencio's work recognizes Indigenous and non-Indigenous veterans' service

Killa Atencio

Killa Atencio has been beading custom orders of poppies, which she hopes will recognize the service of Indigenous and non-Indigenous veterans. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

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Killa Atencio leans over the desk in her Halifax apartment, delicately threading a needle with a tiny red bead, and sews it into what's taking shape as the petal of a poppy. 

The Mi'kmaq artist has beaded dozens of poppies this year in the lead up to Remembrance Day after receiving requests from across the country. 

Atencio, who is originally from Listuguj First Nation in Quebec and of Quechua ancestry, says her work is in recognition of the contributions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous veterans.

"I am doing it to honour and celebrate and commemorate those who have served and those who have sacrificed and their families, and those who are still fighting," she said. 

Labour of love 

Each poppy takes about two and a half hours to create. First, she draws the flower on paper and reinforces the outline with felt to create a firm base. Then she sews on each individual bead.

Though the process is tedious and her fingers bear the marks of wayward needles, Atencio says it's a time of reflection and she often prays as she sews.

"It's a time I use to honour those people." 

Killa Atencio beading

The first step in the process is drawing a poppy, Atencio says. Before she starts beading she adds a layer of felt to create a firmer base. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

'Uniqueness and an awareness'

She was inspired to bead her own poppy after spotting similar projects. Atencio has yet to hold on to one for long due to the steady demand. 

She hopes the beaded design reminds people that in the past, aboriginal veterans often didn't receive the same recognition as their fellow soldiers and due to policies of enfranchisement, some were stripped of their identity as "Status Indians."

"They lost their status to go fight and a lot of people don't know that. I hope that it brings a uniqueness and an awareness to Remembrance Day," Atencio said. 

Atencio, who is also a spoken word artist, previously recorded a recitation of Flanders Fields in Mi'kmaq, which she says was a way to keep the tradition she loved at ceremonies growing up alive. 

'A forever piece'

Atencio says she's received many orders from veterans, politicians and people serving in the Canadian Forces.

Former governor general Michaëlle Jean and recently-elected Halifax councillor Lindell Smith are among those who have one, she says.

"Some people just like it for their uniqueness, some people want it to commemorate and acknowledge aboriginal veterans and some want it because it's pretty and long-lasting and a forever piece," she said. 

Beaded poppies

Each poppy takes about two and a half hours to make. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Trademarked symbol

The Royal Canadian Legion holds trademark rights on the poppy.

Bill Maxwell, with the Dominion Command of the Royal Canadian Legion in Ottawa, says the legion "doesn't approve of any commercial venture involving manufacture, sale or distribution of poppies."
He says every year they run into issues with people making different types of poppies. He wasn't aware of Atencio's work.

"There's a fine line there somewhere. The policy of the legion is that they shouldn't be sold," he said.

"If somebody has a specific skill, as in beaded poppies or sealskin poppies, they may do it in a very small amount for friends or family — then that could be appropriate."

'Not a competition'

Atencio says she respects the trademark, and plans to donate some of the proceeds from the poppies she has made to the legion.

"It's not a competition, I'm not trying to take away from the legion's poppies," she said. "It's not my design, it is a flower, it's a part of nature.... so I simply recreate it in my way."

She sells the poppies for $30 on her website and has been trying to finish orders while working full time. 

"I still put my money and my donations in [the legion's donation boxes], I just don't take a poppy because I have one that lasts forever," she said. ​

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