PEI·First Person

Life is what you make it: How I'm relearning Mi'kmaw culture

Gordo Bernard grew up in Indian Island, N.B., and Scotchfort, P.E.I. He now plays a central role in helping his community as manager of the Emergency Measures Organization, and is working to relearn Mi'kmaw traditions.

My grandparents taught me about some traditional medicine; now I'm working to relearn old teachings to pass on

Gordo Bernard as a young boy. Bernard was born in Charlottetown and lived in Indian Island, N.B., and later in Scotchfort, P.E.I. (Submitted by Gordo Bernard)

This First Person article is the experience of Gordon Bernard, the Emergency Measures Organization manager with the Abegweit First Nation on P.E.I. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My name is Gordon Bernard, but my friends call me Gordo. 

I was born in Charlottetown at the old Queen Elizabeth Hospital. My father, Ivan Bernard, told me that after I was born they tore it down. That has been the running joke for all my life, which makes me laugh to this day. 

I lived on the Island for a few years and then we moved to Indian Island, N.B., where we went to live with my grandparents. 

What this Mi'kmaw man learned from his grandparents

1 year ago
Duration 2:28
Growing up, Gordo Bernard's grandparents shared pieces of traditional knowledge with him, something he carries with him to this day.

The best medicine

When I was five to seven years old, my grandparents showed me a lot of things about traditional medicines that were passed to them when they were children.

To this day, I regret not being old enough to remember what they tried to teach me. One of my favourites was when we were sick my grandfather would go into the woods and find a birch bark tree and peel off some birch and bring it home and put in it the little metal bowl he had on the woodstove and boil it in water with other ingredients (to this day I do not remember what they were).

Gordo and his family went to live on Indian Island, N.B., with his grandparents. (Submitted by Gordo Bernard)

One thing I will say is that it tasted horrible, but it worked better than any medicine that was on the market then and likely today.

My grandmother used to use a certain leaf with bear grease or lard and wrap any cuts, rashes or scraps. She tied the leaf around it and by the end of the day or next morning it was near or completely healed.

She also used to use beehives for medicine but that is all that either I remember or that my sister later told me about. 

Return to P.E.I.

After some time passed, we decided to move back to Scotchfort in P.E.I. My family was not whole as we came back to P.E.I. My mother and sister stayed in New Brunswick. 

It was me, my father and my older brother, Michael. We came here with nothing more than the clothes on our backs and started our new life here in Abegweit First Nation.

Gordo Bernard's parents. Gordo moved to P.E.I. with his father while his mother stayed in New Brunswick. (Submitted by Gordo Bernard)

I would be starting in a new school, I had to make new friends and make the new transition, not only in a new province but a new First Nation. It was not easy on me or my family, but we made do with what we had and with help from our community here in Abegweit.

Just like any move, life had its ups and downs. 

Bringing back old teachings

As the years went on, I started to get more involved in community activities. This included a men's group, which gave us a great teacher and mentor in Francis Jadis.

He brought back the old teachings of basket making, medicine bags and harvesting of black ash. This felt like a second chance to learn some of the old teachings from a great teacher and I did not pass it up.

Gordo's daughter Brae-Lynn and stepson Carson. He hopes to be able to pass what he's learned on to them. (Submitted by Gordo Bernard)

I am thankful for what I learned and look forward to passing it onto my own children with hopes of them passing it onto their children someday. 

On deck

After high school I got into fisheries with Abegweit and started lobster fishing at 17. I started fishing out of Redhead in Morell, P.E.I., under the teachings of a dear friend of my father's, Sterling Gunn.

He taught me and my brother a lot about fishing lobster and how to conduct ourselves in the back of the boat. 

After lobster fishing for a couple of years I was called up to the big leagues and went snow crabbing, which was one of my favourite fisheries. I also worked in other fisheries such as tuna, mackerel, herring, rock crab, halibut, and cod (when it was a fishery).

Gordo Bernard started fishing right out of high school. He says being on the boat was a way to leave everything going on in his life on the shore. (Submitted by Gordo Bernard)

I had so many mentors in these fields but one who stands out is Darren Knockwood, who showed me a lot in the front and back of the boat, as well as the science of fishing and fisheries.

He was hands on and took his time and made sure I did it right. He trained my brother as a lobster fishing captain and what he learned he also shared with me. My big brother was one of my favourite captains because of his no-nonsense work ethic. 

If you have a job to do, you go out and do it and be the best at it. I can safely say I was one of the most sought out deckhands for our band at that time and maybe even would be today if I was still in the industry. 

Typing this with a smile on my face

I am now Abegweit First Nation's Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) manager. I volunteered a lot of my time to help the previous co-ordinator, Roderick (Roddy) Gould, with hurricanes, winter storms (which caused power outages for days) and anything community-related he needed help with.

Now the torch has been passed to me and I have been in my current position for a little over a year. With help from my EMO team we are leading Abegweit through emergencies and I am beyond happy with my new role in life. 

Gordo with his fiancée April. (Submitted by Gordo Bernard)

I have two beautiful women in my life: my fiancée April and four-year-old daughter Brae-Lynn. They and my stepson Carson are the reasons I do what I do. My parents provided me with the best life they could, and I am doing the same for my family. 

It's funny when I look back at everything that happened in my life to where I am today, I'm still sitting here typing this with a smile on my face and looking forward to tomorrow and the days in my life to follow because of everyone who is in it. 

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Gordo Bernard is the EMO manager with the Abegweit First Nation. He lives in Scotchfort with his family.