The National Arts Centre Orchestra was welcomed with open arms Wednesday in the First Nations community of Eskasoni for a special performance based on the words of local poet Rita Joe.

"She would have loved it," said Joe's youngest daughter, Ann Joe. "I think she would have been very honoured and humbled by all the attention."

Rita Joe, who died in 2007, is known as the poet laureate of the Mi'kmaq people and was a member of the Order of Canada and the Queen's Privy Council for Canada.  

Orchestra music director Alexander Shelley said he was overwhelmed by the community's welcome, which included a feast of seafood and a performance by local musicians. 

National Arts Centre Orchestra music director Alexander Shelley

NAC Orchestra music director Alexander Shelley works with Cape Breton band students (Holly Conners/CBC)

"I don't think I could've, in my wildest dreams, imagined that they would welcome us in the way that they have done. It really is an enormous privilege for us," he said.

"Being here in this place where Rita Joe lived for so many years is already something incredibly precious for us because we've been intimately involved in her words for the last two years."

The orchestra's performance included I Lost My Talk, a multimedia work based Joe's poem about her experience at a residential school in Subenacadie. It also included We Shall Remain (It Wasn't Taken Away), a new song by Eskasoni high school student Kaolin Johnson, her father Tom Johnson and teacher Carter Chaisson. 

Audience deeply touched

"I was actually pretty overwhelmed," said Sarah Prosper, a Grade 11 student at Allison Bernard Memorial High School.

Her grandmother cried "through the special pieces," she added.

"It was a very emotional moment for everybody here in Eskasoni.... I'm just honoured to be a part of it."

Eskasoni music teacher Carter Chaisson and Kalolin Johnson

Allison Bernard Memorial High School music teacher Carter Chaisson (seated) performs with student Kaolin Johnson. The song Gentle Warrior was inspired by a Rita Joe poem. (Holly Conners/CBC)

In addition to the performance, Shelley and orchestra musicians held music clinics with band students from across Cape Breton, as well as a special workshop for Eskasoni students with artist Alan Syliboy, violin virtuoso James Ehnes and Kalolin Johnson.

Leslie Anne Andrews, an arts education consultant with the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, said the performance was a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for many of the students.

"To have this calibre of performers in our community, to provide them lessons and raise their musicality and talents to the next level," Andrews said.

Ann Joe and Francis Joe

Rita Joe's daughters Ann and Francis say their mother would be overjoyed by the NAC Orchestra performance. (Holly Conners/CBC)

Sister Dorothy Moore, a nun, attended residential school with Rita Joe during the 1940's.

"This was an absolute blast," she said. "I feel I was privileged. What we are now doing is healing us, healing all our survivors."

with files from Holly Conners and Mainstreet Cape Breton