Nova Scotia

New Louisbourg volunteers Basque in chance to share unique culture

A new partnership between Basque organizations, Parks Canada, and Cape Breton University has helped bring a different side of Fortress Louisbourg's history to life.

Fortress hosting two volunteers from Basque Country to share dances and culture with staff and visitors

Mirari Loyarte Aramburu and Amets Aranguren Arrieta are spending their summer at the Fortress of Louisbourg interpreting Basque culture, music, and history. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

A pilot project at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, N.S., aims to share the rich history of the Basque people, who played an important role in founding the community.

While any visitor to the site will quickly learn the town was settled by the French, it's not as obvious that Basque people also played a key role. Two volunteer interpreters from Spain's autonomous Basque Country are changing that this summer.

Mirari Loyarte Aramburu and Amets Aranguren Arrieta are dressing in 18th-century Basque clothing, playing traditional music, and interpreting their history for visitors. Each week, the women are spending three days at the historic site and two studying at Cape Breton University.

The college students jumped at the chance to volunteer overseas and share their unique culture.

"I'm very keen on history, so I thought it was a very good chance to interpret," said Aramburu. 

"I think it's a really interesting opportunity to see how people work in a historical site like this," said Arrieta. 

Learning Basque dances and music

Both of the young women speak Basque as their first language. They also speak English and French. 

"One of the things that we're very proud of is our language, because it is the thing we've been carrying on since the Roman Empire," said Aramburu. 

Before the women left Spain, they were outfitted with 18th-century Basque clothing, much of which looks similar to what's worn at Louisbourg, except they wear kerchiefs on their heads, rather than bonnets. They were also given a traditional flute, accurate to the 18th-century. 

Aramburu and Arrieta have taught some of their music and dances to the local interpreters, who can now help the women show it to visitors.

Interpreters perform a traditional Basque dance for visitors to the Fortress of Louisbourg. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Eddie Kennedy, visitor experience manager at the fortress, said the idea for the program was sparked when a Basque conference was held at Cape Breton University last year.

"When visitors come, the first house that they meet ... is actually a typical Basque fishermen's home," said Kennedy. "But we don't have staff that speak Basque or have staff that are Basque."

According to Kennedy, Basque fishermen came to the community seasonally and were the second largest cultural demographic group in the 18th century. 

"The Basque language was actually spoken to the extent that petitions were given to the governor to have administrative court judges and priests speaking in Basque to help accommodate the needs of that population group," says Kennedy.

Half a millennium of history 

Basque people began trading with Indigenous people on the East Coast more than 500 years ago. As fishermen and sailors, they left their mark with place names like Port Aux Basques, N.L., and Nova Scotia's Basque Islands. The Basque people live in northern Spain, but their language is unrelated to any other tongue on Earth. 

Most of the Basque community lived in Louisbourg temporarily, though some stayed permanently, as shown by some traditional Basque names that still exist in Cape Breton today. After the fortress fell to the English, most of the Basque people went back to Spain or France.

The program will run until the end of August. Kennedy said if it's a success, they hope to do it again next year.

The program is a partnership between Parks Canada, Cape Breton University, Etxepare Institute of the Basque Government, and Jauzarrea, a fund for the study and sharing of Basque culture.

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About the Author

Brittany Wentzell

Current Affairs Reporter/Editor

Brittany Wentzell is based in Sydney, N.S., as a reporter for Information Morning Cape Breton. She has covered a wide range of issues including education, forestry and municipal government. Story ideas? Send them to brittany.wentzell@cbc.ca

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