Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaq-Basque relationship celebrated at Cape Breton conference

At least 500 years ago, people from the Basque region of Europe were in Eastern Canada, sharing elements of their culture and know-how with the Indigenous people they encountered. This week, an international symposium happening at Cape Breton University has rekindled that cross-cultural exchange.

International scholars gather to discuss centuries-old cultural exchange

Stephen Augustine, Cape Breton University's associate vice-president of Indigenous Affairs and Unama'ki College (left) and Xabi Otero, director of Jauzarrea. (Holly Conners/CBC)

At least 500 years ago, people from the Basque region of Europe were in Eastern Canada, sharing elements of their culture and know-how with the Indigenous people they encountered.

This week, an international symposium happening at Cape Breton University has rekindled that cross-cultural exchange.

More than two dozen scholars from around the world gathered at CBU's Boardmore Playhouse on Thursday and Friday.

They included archeologists, anthropologists, geneticists, linguists, musicologists and folklorists, said Stephen Augustine, associate vice-president of Indigenous Affairs and Unama'ki College at CBU, and one of the conference organizers.

Sunken ship discovered

The discovery of a sunken Basque whaling ship in Red Bay, Labrador, proved the connection dates back to at least the mid-1500s, said Augustine. 

"But the Basque had been fishing cod and whales for a couple of hundred years before that, at least."

While they took whale oil, cod and beaver furs back to Europe, they also left traces of their language and skills.

"Champlain and a few of the early explorers like Cartier and Cabot, they observe meeting Indigenous people who were speaking Basque words. And they were sailing these chalupas [small Basque whaling boats] rather than canoeing with canoes," said Augustine.

The Mi'kmaq word for "shirt" has its root in the Basque language, he said.

Shared experiences

The two cultures are also both First Nations and share the experience of colonization, said Xabi Otero, director of Jauzarrea, a Basque organization dedicated to the study and dissemination of the Basque culture.

"We arrived to Western Europe from Africa and Central Asia 43,000 or 45,000 years ago. And we're still there, with the same language," said Otero.

"We are so connected to the land. We have our myths and legends ... But we lost many things."

The goal of the conference, he said, is knowledge sharing.

"We're coming together to support each other," said Augustine. "And also to spread around the world that we are here, we're alive ... Because diversity makes us stronger."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Holly Conners is a reporter and current affairs producer who has been with CBC Cape Breton since 1998. Contact her at holly.conners@cbc.ca.

With files from Mainstreet Cape Breton

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