Who was Rita Joe?

Halifax pays tribute to Mi’kmaw poet through naming of transit vessel

More than a decade after her death, Rita Joe is still making waves. 

On Oct. 26, Halifax Regional Municipality memorialized Joe by naming the newest public transit ferry after her. The Rita Joe joined a fleet including vessels named for Halifax explosion hero Vincent Coleman and civil rights activist Viola Desmond. Two other ferries were named for Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan: Craig Blake and Christopher Stannix. 

Joe – sometimes referred to as the “gentle warrior” or the “warrior poet” – was born in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton and was orphaned by the time she was 10. Joe moved from foster home to foster home before being sent to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School – now known for its abusive history – when she was 12 years old.  

Joe returned to Cape Breton in adulthood after meeting her husband, Frank. The couple lived in Eskasoni and would eventually have 10 children together, including two adopted boys. 

Joe became a prolific writer, penning both poetry and a memoir. One of her most well-known pieces, “I Lost My Talk,” reflects on the residential school experience and the loss of the Mi’kmaq language. 

“She always gave her time to come to classrooms and talk about her poetry and talk about her life, and talk about the Mi’kmaq culture, history, and things like that,” recalled Jaime Battiste, who grew up “about a half kilometre” from Joe in Eskasoni. “I do remember a lot of times just sitting in her class, you know, I knew there was something special about this woman.” 

But Battiste, now a writer and a researcher in Mi’kmaq law, didn’t know exactly how influential Joe was.  

“In our community, we did not realize how special she was until many years later,” he said. 

“Many of her poems inspired me as a songwriter now.” 

Throughout her life, Joe published seven books and received multiple awards, including the Order of Canada and an honorary Doctorate of Law from Dalhousie University. Joe died in 2007, having lived with Parkinson’s disease for many years. She was 75.  

“She was just a gentle, kind soul,” said Battiste. “The title that they gave her as a ‘gentle warrior’ is just so appropriate. 

Daniel Paul – Mi’kmaw Elder, local author and friend of Joe – said Joe was a “good representative” of the Mi’kmaq. On his website, Paul wrote about the natural and human-made fixtures “named to honour the memories of colonial Caucasian men” who “committed horrific crimes against humanity” in the process of the colonization of the Americas.  

Paul hopes Halifax’s naming of the ferry marks a move to honour “real heroes.” 

“I think we have plenty of real heroes to recognize and put on a pedestal. I think Rita Joe is among them,” he said. “There are other people who have also made a big difference in Nova Scotia. People that are great role models and deserve to be honoured for their positive contributions to society.” 

Battiste agrees. “I’d like to see more recognition of Mi’kmaq all across Nova Scotia,” he said. “It is a step in the right direction of reconciliation in this country.” 

I Lost My Talk by Rita Joe 

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.

You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.

Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.

Editor’s note: “I Lost My Talk” was printed in the Dalhousie Gazette with permission from Rita Joe’s publisher, Breton BooksThere are four of Joe’s books currently in print: We Are the Dreamers, For the Children (with woodcuts by Burland Murphy), The Blind Man’s Eyes and Joe’s autobiography Song of Rita Joe.

With files from Shayla Smith

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Rebecca Dingwell

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