Skift Take

The Pope recently visited Alberta to apologize for the abuse of Indigenous people in Canadian residential schools. While apologies don't always do the job, it's better than nothing. Still, Julie Pellissier-Lush of Indigenous Tourism PEI called it just a stepping stone.

The rich stories of various Canadian Indigenous groups are slowly being uncovered and told with more and more pride after years of trauma. As the first inhabitants of Canada, it is important to raise awareness and help them gain more representation while also paying attention to the healing process.

On Prince Edward Island, Indigenous peoples make up two percent of the population, and one of the more widely known is the The Mi’kmaq (Mi’kmaw, Micmac or L’nu, “the people” in Mi’kmaq) who have been living on the land for at least 12,000 years. 

Indigenous Tourism PEI is working hard to mend the severed ties between Indigenous groups and other folks who call the island home. The Knowledge-Keeper Julie Pellissier-Lush is not only PEI’s Poet-Laureate, but also the author of the best-selling novel, “My Mi’kmaq Mother.” She writes, acts, and helps promote the bountiful experiences within Mi’kmaq culture. 

Pellissier-Lush was born in Summerside, PEI, and then moved around a lot with her father after her mother died of lymphatic cancer. She didn’t come back to the island until 2005 and by that time she had three children to bring with her. She’s been on the island since, and said “once you’re here and you’re born here, it’s really hard to push it away. You always end up coming back.”

Dorothy Stark, Pellissier-Lush’s grandmother, married David Bernard who was a residential school survivor. They had a difficult life, but loved each other and had 17 children, one of the older ones being Pellissier-Lush’s mother. At that time, things were tough. It was essential to gather oysters, clams and lobster to survive, and then in the winter, they made baskets to sell within the community so that they had enough money to buy flour and milk. “And of course potatoes as well which are still a staple across all of PEI,” added Pellissier-Lush. 

The Pope on Monday visited Maskwacis, Alberta, to apologize for “evil committed by so many Christians in Canada’s residential schools.” The voices of Mi’kmaqs are being amplified, drawing attention to the generations of pain that they endured so many years ago, but an apology isn’t usually enough. 

Skift spoke this week to Pellissier-Lush. The following conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Skift: Who are the Mi’kmaq people and what is their story?

Pellissier-Lush: We are the Mi’kmaq people of PEI, the L’nu. And we have been here from time immemorial. We were here when there was still ice formed over this big continent. We would chase the wildlife for food and make camp in the evenings and sit under the stars and share our stories. That’s how we pass down our culture, our knowledge, and tradition — through the stories that we share. 

Skift: Can you tell me about some traditional Mi’kmaq cultural practices?

Pellissier-Lush: There’s numerous different cultural practices that we do, and a lot of them are borrowed from other nations. The Sweat Lodge is where we go to pray and where we do different circles. For example, we have talking circles where different individuals come and hold a token, something like a stick or a feather which grants them the ability to speak without anyone interrupting. It’s a great practice of patience to remember the words you want to say as others speak. We also do this in healing circles with our Indigenous justice program where the victim will work things out with the perpetrator, talking to figure out the best way for restitution. We have powwows, or Mawiomis, where we get to gather and share our language, songs, dance, and other traditions. We open it up to everybody on the island. Our powwow drum didn’t actually come back to PEI until 1986. So, we feel a little bit behind the eight ball, but it’s still good. We started it with one drum and one gathering. Now I think we have five Mawiomis across the island here in PEI because we have Lennox island, the native council one, the Aglit one, we used to have one with the Mi’kmaq Confederacy, which is the tribal council here in PEI, as well as UPEI’s Mawiomi day where everybody gathers. Sundance is another tradition where people dance for a certain number of days without food or water. We also have the full moon ceremony, which is the only time we are supposed to cut our hair. So there are different, amazing ceremonies and traditions that are still being passed down. Not all of them are Mi’kmaq, but being the first to be colonized, I think we were the first to lose a lot of the things that we had originally had.

Skift: What is the relationship like between Mi’kmaq folks and others who live on the island?

Pellissier-Lush: I think it’s getting better. There’s more opportunities for us to share because we’re being invited to different events to speak our truths. I feel that with each opportunity the door opens a bit wider for reconciliation. We’re still working on the recommendations for the calls to action with the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, so ther, so we are definitely not quite there yet. With that being said, I think we are moving forward. Just little steps, one bit at a time.

Skift: What are some of the ITPEI’s missions to promote interest in Mi’kmaq culture and help them gain more representation on the island?

Pellissier-Lush: They are working on a webpage that will encompass a lot of ideas, one being a one stop shop for all of our Indigenous artisans. They are trying to make a place for people to access the work of our quill makers, basket makers, story tellers, and theater groups.  So if you are traveling to PEI and you’re interested in the Indigenous part of the island then you’d be able to go to a web page to access events or places where cultural activities are being offered. The ITPEI wants to implement videos of crafters creating moccasins, baskets, claywork and beadwork onto the webpage so that people can not only find out where to find these things, but can actually see the work these artisans produce. Indigenous Tourism PEI is also working on raising money to fund artisans that struggle to afford business cards, and other objects to make their spaces look presentable.

Skift: How do you feel about the Pope’s apology?

Pellissier-Lush: That’s a tough one. I think our community is really split on that. We are still feeling a lot of pain that had to be tucked away for so many years and it’s finally allowed to come out. Some people feel as though the apology didn’t encompass enough to make it stick, to make it real, to make an impact with the Indigenous people that are survivors and the generations that follow. The trauma gets passed down when you have a residential school survivor who has never been allowed to be around family, never knew about love, was ridiculed for being who they are, and then they grow up and try to raise a family. The result of not knowing how to hug your children and say I love you is intergenerational trauma where the following generations are impacted. So did the Pope go far enough in his apology? I don’t know. I think that it’s really where you are in your healing journey, and if it was enough for you or not. To me, it is a stepping stone. It is the start of acknowledging those wrongs and starting to heal. Did it go far enough? I don’t know. From what I’ve been hearing there is still so much hurt that maybe it didn’t. 

CORRECTION: This story was updated to swap in Indigenous Tourism PEI for ITAC. 

Tags: canada, indigenous tourism, Prince Edward Island, tourism