Meet the young Mi'kmaw artists leading a cultural reawakening on Unama'ki

There is a rich history of artistry and creativity on Cape Breton Island, known by the Mi'kmaq as Unama'ki. While locals have always known this, the rest of the world is starting to catch on.

Dancers, painters, comics and more hail from Cape Breton Island, known by the Mi'kmaq as Unama'ki

This mural, titled Etle'k-The Embers of the Fire are Still Going, is by Mi'kmaw artists Chanelle Julian and Isaac Gould. (Steve Wadden)

In 2019, Emma Stevens captured the world's attention with her cover of the Beatles song Blackbird, sung entirely in Mi'kmaw.

It has since been viewed over 1.6 million times on YouTube, and got the attention of Paul McCartney. She's since heard from hundreds or more people, writing online and to CBC Radio, who said they were deeply moved by her performance.

Stevens isn't alone. She's part of a vibrant new generation of Mi'kmaw artists leading a cultural renaissance. Many of them, including Stevens, hail from Membertou, on Cape Breton Island — or Unama'ki to the Mi'kmaq.

It's one of the largest of Nova Scotia's 13 Mi'kmaw communities, but also the third-largest employer in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, with almost 700 jobs, generating more than $67 million in revenue per year.

Other artists hail from the nearby community of Eskasoni, the largest Mi'kmaw community in Canada, which sits on a bay in Bras D'Or Lake.

Emma Stevens, left, and her music teacher Carter Chiasson work on the Mi'kmaq cover of Blackbird by The Beatles. (Submitted by Katani Julian)

CBC Radio's Unreserved spoke to several up and coming young artists from the region, all taking part in a new cultural reawakening.

Morgan Toney

It's been a good couple of years for 22-year-old fiddler Morgan Toney.

In 2022, he won two East Coast Music Awards for his debut record First Flight, and was nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award. And in 2021, he was nominated for a Music Nova Scotia Award. He also recently signed a record deal with Ishkōdé Records, a new Indigenous-run label that aims to foster and amplify Indigenous talent.

Toney spoke with Unreserved at Kiju's, a popular restaurant and club in Unama'ki. He'd just played in front of a jubilant crowd, alongside Kyle MacNeil on violin and Boyd MacNeil on banjo.

"Although we want our music to be fun and enjoyable, we want to make the songs catchy. That's our goal. But hidden beyond that is the seriousness of issues," Toney said.

Morgan Toney is a fiddler, and among the young musicians who are part of a cultural reawakening on Cape Breton Island, or Unama’ki. (CBC)

Part of Toney's journey is reclaiming his own grip on the Mi'kmaw language and culture. When he was younger, he recalled not knowing how to participate in a smudging ceremony at school.

This experience prompted him to learn language and history from his father and other community elders. Along the way, he also learned how to play the fiddle.

"I have this mission. I have this goal to bring issues into the light, to show people that our culture is really important to us, that our language is important to us," he said.

Toney, centre, plays with Kyle MacNeil and Boyd MacNeil at Kiju's, a popular restaurant and bar in Membertou, on Cape Breton Island. (Wendy Bergfeldt/CBC)

Clifton Cremo

Last summer, tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous lobster fishers in Nova Scotia made national headlines, sometimes erupting into violence

The topic is still divisive in Unama'ki. But for standup comedian Clifton Cremo, it was a chance to crack a smart joke or two, perhaps leading the way to mutual understanding between the Mi'kmaq and their non-Indigenous neighbours.

Comedian Clifton Cremo weaves comedy out of Indigenous issues and sometimes contentious stories, but also makes time for light-hearted observations about everyday life. (Clifton Cremo/Instagram)

"That was so frustrating to watch play out because to me, there was such a simple solution. You know, you line up all the white fishermen on one side, line up all the Native fishermen on the other side," he said during a recent performance at Kiju's. "You put the lobster in the middle, [and] let the lobster choose. Worked for my parents in the divorce," he said, eliciting raucous laughter from the crowd.

Cremo keeps his routines varied, with "a lot of silly jokes" along with more complex material. He attributes part of his success to learning from his grandfather Lee Cremo, who was also a championship-winning fiddler, as well as having a sharp sense of humour.

"I think it's important to educate people without lecturing people. I think that … starting tough conversations [is] a very big part of speaking truth," Cremo said.

"Even though standup comedy is a one-way conversation, you've started it. And then people after the show will come up to me and talk to me and be like, 'Oh, I've never thought of it like that.'"

Isaac Gould and Chanelle Julian

Isaac Gould and Chanelle Julian are the current artists-in-residence at an art studio and community centre in Sydney, Unama'ki.

Formerly a convent and school for girls, it has since been renamed Eltuek, which is Mi'kmaw for "making it together." This renaming emphasizes the collaborative creative work being done there now.

"Indigenous people have always been extremely artistic. It's very embedded in our way of life. And I think that we finally are entering an era where just in general the world is starting to make space for that," said Julian.

Artist Isaac Gould working on the painting Embers. (Melissa Kearney)

Gould often paints evocative landscapes and misty oceanside communities, deftly working with an interplay of light and shadow.

"I like to think that when I paint scenery, I'm just letting nature do what it does best. It almost feels like … envisioning, like, a dream that you've had," Gould explained.

Julian describes their creative process as a kind of "flow state" — something their great-grandmother, the Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe, also experienced.

"Flow state is kind of just like when you're no longer overthinking, it's just all pouring out," Julian explained. "There's a lot of belief that when you're in flow state, you're interacting with the spirit world, and that spirit is kind of gifting you a lot of those words that are coming through your images."

Sarah Prosper

Sarah Prosper started dancing when she was four. Now 22, she's considered one of the best contemporary dancers of her generation.

Last spring, she debuted her original dance piece Samqwan at the Highland Arts Theatre in Sydney. As Prosper explains, it's about water, and the Mi'kmaw connection to it. But it's also about water's deeply political nature in modern society.

Sarah Prosper is a contemporary dancer from Unama’ki. (Devon Pennick-Reilly)

"Mi'kmaq people are water people. We live around the water. We are surrounded by an island right now in Mi'kmaq, full of water and animals," she said. "All these things about water that are important to us, yet we have still been on the last of the list to have a clean drink. Why?"

Prosper comes from a family with a long lineage of artists and performers. Her grandfather wrote hymns and other music in Mi'kmaw. Currently, her brother performs as a drummer and singer around the Atlantic provinces.

To Prosper, it's important that she and her contemporaries continue to tell Indigenous stories through their art, in ways they couldn't in previous generations.

"Why do Indigenous people try so hard and speak so loudly for their culture and the revitalization of their culture and who they are? There's only one answer, and it's because the people before us were not allowed," she said.

"They were not allowed to speak their language. They were not allowed to voice their opinion. They were not even allowed to move in a way that they wanted to.

"And now we have that freedom to share that hurt, but also share that beauty from that."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Wendy Bergfeldt, Holly Conners, Devin Farrell, Erin Noel and Kim Kaschor.

Listen to the audio above to hear from more artists, including:

  • Rappers Todd Googoo, a.k.a. SHiFT from tha 902, and Gearl Francis.
  • Carter Chiasson, music instructor at Allison Bernard Memorial High School at Eskasoni First Nation.
  • More from singer Emma Stevens.

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