Canadian astronaut takes Mi'kmaw basket to space station

When Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques blasted into space on his way to the International Space Station on Monday, he took with him some symbolic Mi’kmaw items. Tucked away in his gear was a small handmade basket and an eagle feather.

David Saint-Jacques also given an eagle feather and a Mi'kmaw name

International Space Station crew member David Saint-Jacques of Canada gestures after donning a spacesuit shortly before the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 3, 2018. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

When Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques blasted into space Monday on his way to the International Space Station, he took with him some symbolic Mi'kmaw items.

Tucked away in his gear was an eagle feather and a miniature, handmade basket created out of wood from a black ash tree.

"The one that is travelling in space with him now is a tiny little basket the size of a loonie," said basketmaker Shanna Francis of Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton.

"I made it a few years ago and it has a new home now. It's in space."

This is the basket and eagle feather International Space Station crew member David Saint-Jacques brought with him to space. (Submitted)

Francis joined many other Indigenous people inside a theatre room at the Discovery Centre in Halifax to watch the rocket blast off from Kazakhstan. 

"It makes me believe that anything is possible," said Francis. "I hope it might in some way open new doors for the youth in our community."

Many others took in the launch at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre in Cape Breton.

"We try to light the embers of creativity and imaginations for these kids," said Christopher Googoo, chief operating officer of Ulnooweg's Digital Mi'kmaq program, which aims to bridge the digital divide faced by Indigenous youth.

"We'd like to see them pursue being an astronaut because that pursuit will get them into things like mathematics and engineering."

This past year, the Canadian Space Agency and the Digital Mi'kmaq program collaborated on a robotics program and the partnership led to the basket and feather being given to Saint-Jacques.

In a subsequent interview with CBC Radio's Mainstreet, Googoo said Mi'kmaq people "hold the feather in very high esteem."

Shanna Francis made a small basket for astronaut David Saint-Jacques. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

"In our legends and even in our ceremonies, we always see eagles flying and it's a symbol of honour, a symbol of respect," Googoo said.

"For a kid to imagine an eagle flying over and above the clouds literally, it's something we wanted to grasp on right away."

Googoo said the basket "holds, really, the respect of our heritage as Mi'kmaw people."

In addition to the items, Googoo said they adopted a Mi'kmaw name for Saint-Jacques: Tapit, which means David.

"We want to expand this into telling and challenging kids to tell stories about what a journey would look like with Tapit​," he said.

Christopher Googoo is with Ulnooweg's Digital Mi'kmaq program. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

One of the students to take in the launch was Jasmine Stevens, a college student from Eskasoni who is studying to become a pilot.

"I'd like to become the first Mi'kmaw astronaut," said Stevens. "I want to further my education and I plan to work really hard to realize my dream."

Saint-Jacques — a doctor who also holds degrees in engineering and astrophysics as well as a commercial pilot's licence — will spend his time at the ISS conducting experiments, operating Canadarm2 (the Canadian-built robotic arm aboard the ISS) and testing new technologies, the Canadian Space Agency says.

Jasmine Stevens would like to become the first Mi'kmaw astronaut. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

With files from CBC Radio's Mainstreet