Nova Scotia

Ferry named for Rita Joe, Mi'kmaw poet who longed for her culture's revival

Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe once wrote that the 'beauty of my people' had been forgotten. But that is hardly the case in the city of Halifax today.

Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe once wrote that the 'beauty of my people' had been forgotten

Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe is invested into the Order of Canada by Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn, in a ceremony at Rideau Hall in 1998. (The Canadian Press)

Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe once wrote that the "beauty of my people" had been forgotten.

But that is hardly the case in the city of Halifax.

A ceremony was held Friday on the waterfront to officially unveil a new harbour ferry that has been named in her honour.

The name was chosen through a public vote.

Joe was also an artist, songwriter and craftswoman from Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton.

"There's already a boat named after her on the reservation, and now there's a ferry named after her in Halifax. She would have been so happy," her daughter, Frances Sylliboy, said Thursday as she drove to the capital for the ceremony.

"People are going to ask, 'Who is Rita Joe?' And people are going to find out."

'My culture, put down so long, now dear'

Joe's poems and songs portray a mixture of pain and joy, from the loss of her parents at a young age in Whycocomagh, N.S., through to the full reclamation of her Indigenous language and culture late in her life — a journey documented in books, films, songs and in several anthologies.

Spiritual themes and celebrations of nature are woven through Joe's work, particularly in her later years as accolades and honours came to a woman who once said she was simply "stating the facts of life."

In a poem about her sunrise ceremony, she wrote: "An amazement is contained in my native mind / What is most beautiful the senses find. The humility speaks loud and clear / My culture, put down so long, now dear."

A residential school survivor

Her early life had been hard. In childhood, she was shifted between foster families, and eventually requested entry into a residential school at the age of 12, where she was prohibited from speaking Mi'kmaw.

"When I began to write, I wondered why the beauty of my people had not been recorded," she said in her autobiography, "Song of Rita Joe."

Her poetry spoke of regaining her ancestral culture, with one work noting, "my heart remains / tuned to native time."

"I write mostly to inspire others," she wrote in her autobiography, as she struggled with Parkinson's disease.

"If others look at me — blind in one eye, almost deaf, often with socks that don't match — the attitude I put forth may convince them that they could do even better."

Some poetry vented her anger

Sylliboy said Joe wrote more than 700 poems, a collection she's kept in her home on the First Nation near Sydney since her mother's death in 2007.

In her autobiography, Joe spoke of how some poetry vented her anger about "what the world chooses to deny of my peoples' expression and history."

However, her work was also filled with positive imagery of her home community along Bras d'Or Lake.

"In the morning we awaken to the sounds outside, seeing the beauty of water in the rising tides, listening to old folks telling stories of long ago, when the earth was young," she said for the narration of the film, "Rita Joe: Song of Eskasoni."

'People sitting on the ferry, sharing stories'

Theresa Meuse, a Mi'kmaw writer, said the naming ceremony is meaningful to the Indigenous artists Joe inspired. Meuse helped prepare a Mi'kmaw anthology in honour of the poet.

Meuse said she believes Joe would have been pleased by having her name on a ferry, where people from many cultures and backgrounds gather for daily journeys.

"People sitting on the ferry, sharing stories and telling stories — I think she would just love that," she said.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said the city's ferry naming contests have helped raise awareness about the province's rich history.

Ferries honour heroic Nova Scotians

Other vessels have been named after Viola Desmond, an African Nova Scotian who fought for human rights, and Vincent Coleman, a hero of the Halifax Explosion of 1917.

"I always say when someone gets on the ferry ... they may ask people to tell them the story of the person," he said.

"That's the point of naming things after specific people. It tells their story, and by telling that story we tell the wider story of the province."

Two other ferries honour military men killed in Afghanistan.

Master Cpl. Christopher Stannix of Halifax was 24 when he was killed by a roadside bomb in April 2007.

Craig Blake, a petty officer second class from Halifax, was the first Canadian sailor killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan. The 37-year-old father of two was killed by an improvised explosive device in 2010.