1932 - 2007
She Made a Difference!

I was only a housewife with a dream to bring laughter to the sad
eyes of my people and trusting the anchor we live by to complete
the woven tale we are still telling. Quoted from the back cover of
her recent book, We Are the Dreamers.

A Tribute to an Honourable Lady

Rita Joe - The Closing of a Class Act

On March 20, 2007, the Great Spirit welcomed a wonderful person home to the Land of Souls, His daughter Rita . She left a great legacy of written poetic works for our Mi’kmaq Nation to treasure - her words of wisdom, expressed in her poetry, will resonate throughout the ages. She joins her late husband Frank, who also inspired others with his accomplishments later in life.

In fact, it was through Frank, who I met back in the 1970s, when I was employed by Indian Affairs, that I met Rita. Just a short introduction to him:

Frank, like most of us born prior to the 1940s, did not have much of a formal education. However, in mid-life he got his act together and remedied his lack of a formal education by doing the necessary preparatory work to enter university, graduating with a teacher’s licence, and then getting a teaching job. To say the least, I was very impressed, and congratulated him profoundly!

From 1993 to 2004, while I was still writing columns for the Halifax Herald, I wanted to write a column about Rita and family. It was around 1995, at an Arts and Crafts show at the Halifax Metro Center, that I first discussed it with her. We agreed to do it when our busy schedules would permit. In the final analysis, it never got done. This wasn’t because of procrastination on our parts, schedules just didn’t click. After awhile, we kind of got a kick out of the failed effort.

Rita, after reading my book “We Were Not the Savages,” congratulated me for putting into writing for posterity the suffering that the Mi’kmaq suffered at the hands of the British colonials, and after Confederation Canadian Governments. She said that I had delivered “a powerful message.” Her words of praise and appreciation for something that took over ten years of my life to finish were music to my ears. I shall continue to savour them for the rest of my days!

She asked me at that time if I hated the English for the harm they had done our people. I told her no, I just hated the fact that even in modern times they still would not own up to the evils some of their ancestors had perpetrated and make amends. I asked her the same question and her response was “I don’t hate anyone, it does no good to hate.”

Rita’s works project the insights of a gentle but strong soul. They are a gift from her for generations to savour for lifetimes. Lets use them wisely to refresh our minds when we hurt. These words she left in an unfinished poem say it best:

"On the day I am blue, I go again to the wood where the tree is swaying, arms touching you like a friend, and the sound of the wind so alone like I am; whispers here, whispers there, come and just be my friend."

May Rita enjoy peace and tranquillity with the Great Spirit in the Land of Souls for eternity. She lived her life with dignity and respect for others, as her story reveals, she did it extremely well!

Daniel N. Paul


Biography: Rita Joe - Renowned Mi’kmaq Poet

"Indians have in the past been portrayed the bad guys, I write the positive image of my people, the Mi'kmaq."

Rita Joe, a Mi'kmaq (Micmac) Indian was born in Whycocomagh in 1932. Daughter of Josie and Annie Bernard. She met Frank Joe in Boston and they moved to Eskasoni, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. They raised 8 of their children and adopted 2 boys.

Back in 1973, that is when Rita Joe started writing. In Cape Breton Island, there was a Newsletter called The Micmac News. She wrote to the Micmac News periodically. There was one section of the newsletter which had poems and stories. Little did Rita Joe know that her poems would get published in the future. The editor of the newsletter gave her some very good advice: "save your poems and don't throw them away". Over time she gathered and saved a lot of her poems.

Her first book "Poems of Rita Joe" was published back in 1978. Her second book, "Song of Eskasoni" was publish- ed in 1988. Several years later in 1991 she published her third book entitled "Lnu And Indians We're Called." Rita Joe's fourth book "Kelusultiek" meaning "we speak" was a compilation of poems and stories. This book had several writers who were all Micmac (Mi'kmaq) women. The book "Kelusultiek" was published back in 1995. It included her poetry and a short autobiography of herself. Her next book called "Song of Rita Joe - Autobiography of a Mi'kmaq Poet" was published in 1996. The sixth book was called "The Mi'kmaq Anthology," it was published in 1997. She and Lesley Choyce were the co-writers.

Rita was named to the Order of Canada on October 23, 1989. She was invested in the Order on April 18, 1990. The following is the press release issued upon her appointment:

"A Micmac poet, she is proud of her native heritage which she shares through her books, notably Poems of Rita Joe and Songs of Eskasoni. As an active member of the Nova Scotia Writers' Federation, and a speaker at numerous engagements, she has been a true ambassador for her people, promoting native art and culture across Canada and in the United States."

To read more about Rita's bio visit: Biography: Rita Joe - Renowned Mi’kmaq Poet


Mi'kmaq poet Rita Joe was invested into the Order of Canada by then gov-
ernor general Ray Hnatyshyn in 1990. (Canadian Press)

Wednesday, March 21, 2003 - CBC News

Rita Joe, 'poet laureate' of Mi'kmaq, dies

The woman known as the poet laureate of the Mi'kmaq nation has died.

Rita Joe of Eskasoni died Tuesday night at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. She was 75.

Joe had published seven books, including five poetry anthologies and an autobiography, The Song of Rita Joe.

Joe's poetry and activism made her a symbol of native pride.

The Aboriginal Achievement Foundation says Joe worked throughout her life to counter native stereotypes, and her poems and songs reflect both pain and hope.

"If you write in a positive way, or think in a positive way about your culture … it will come back positive," she said in an interview with CBC Radio last month.

"I was brainwashed. 'You're no good,' I was told every day at Shubie [residential school]."

Joe was born in 1932, in Wycocomagh, N.S., and was sent to Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, which she attended until the eighth grade.

She married Frank Joe in 1954 and they had eight children and adopted two more.

Began writing in late 1960s

Rita began to write poetry in the late 1960s, but her first book was not published until 1978.

Her poems gently presented the First Nations experience within Canada, advocating love and understanding between peoples.

She wrote five poetry anthologies and an autobiography, . Her books include and Lnu and Indians We're Called.

Her sixth book, The Mi'kmaq Anthology, published in 1997, was co-written with Lesley Choyce.

Her philosophy has been to find the beauty in every place or circumstance and to keep an upbeat attitude about life.

"I told the audience that no matter from what circumstances you come from, and no matter from what culture, or how poor you are, everybody can do this," she said after receiving a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1997.

"You just have to put your effort into it and be positive. Don't try to work on the negative stuff."

Joe acted as an ambassador for native arts and culture throughout Canada and the U.S., even meeting the Queen.

A long-time activist who wrote numerous articles about native issues, Joe also served on the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, one of the few non-politicians ever to do so.

She was given the Order of Canada in 1990 and also won the Nova Scotia writers federation prize.

Joe told CBC last month she was amazed by all the accolades.

"I accepted on behalf of my people every time I was given an award," she said. "They helped, everybody helped in their own way."


Mar 25, 2007 - Halifax Herald

Rita Joe, poet, 75 - Voice of Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq dies of Parkinson’s disease


Nova Scotia lost a cultural hero Tuesday with the passing of celebrated Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe in Cape Breton at the age of 75.

Known as the poet laureate of the Mi’kmaq nation, Rita Joe died after a battle with Parkinson’s disease. Her daughters found a poem still in her typewriter.

Rita Joe overcame a difficult childhood spent in foster homes and at the Shubenacadie Residential School to publish seven books, mentor young writers, champion Mi’kmaq culture and meet Queen Elizabeth II.

The publication of her first book The Poems of Rita Joe in 1978 was "an extraordinary event," says Nova Scotia writer and publisher Lesley Choyce.

"That was probably the first book of Mi’kmaq poetry by a Mi’kmaq writer published in Nova Scotia. She was able to bring the Mi’kmaq language into publication, which is very rare."

Joe, who just celebrated her birthday March 15, was born in Whycocomagh in 1932. She was orphaned at age 10 and went on to live with a succession of foster families.

When she was in her 30s, Joe began writing verses to counter images of natives that filled the books read by some of her eight children. "She didn’t tell any of us she was going to write," recalled her daughter Frances Sylliboy.

Joe kept it a secret from her husband and children until her work was selected for an award in an annual contest held by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, of which she was a long-time member.

The boost of encouragement cultivated her lifetime goal of changing the perception some non-native people held of her people.

"She didn’t like them being portrayed in a negative way," said Sylliboy. "She wanted to pass along that positive, gentle, loving image of the Indian."

"I want to put out positive images of aboriginal people," Joe said in an interview years ago. "But everything I do is gentle persuasion. And that had more effect than a blockade."

Joe, who lived in Eskasoni, was able to transcend pain through art, says Jane Buss, executive director of the writers’ federation. "Her object was to be a fine writer and to take all the pain and transcend it through the stories, to transmute it into something that gave her people and her stories an honoured place. She succeeded in getting that all started."

In 1997, Joe and Lesley Choyce, of Pottersfield Press, co-edited The Mi’kmaq Anthology, a book featuring 16 Mi’maq writers and a resource Choyce still uses when teaching the aboriginal and black students in the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie University.

"She was out there encouraging Mi’kmaq writers to write and to publish and she would guide them to me as a publisher," he said. "It was a wonderful experience working with her. She had this quiet powerful voice in her poetry and when she spoke in public."

Mi’kmaq poet Lindsay Marshall, related to the writer through her late husband Frank Joe, said that upon meeting Joe "you would not think she was a literary powerhouse.

"She was very laid-back, introspective, very dignified and reserved, but through her poetry she spoke volumes. She didn’t let on her power."

He remembers seeing Joe, also a widely travelled public speaker, at Chapel Island.

"I saw her speak and recite her poems on a summer day in July and, for me, it moved me as a poet. It provided me with the courage to write.

"I think her legacy will be found in classrooms and universities where people are studying her poems," says Marshall, now director of the Mi’kmaq College Institute at Cape Breton University. "Poetry is a snapshot of our past and our culture. It becomes a living legacy."

An officer of the Order of Canada and one of the few non-politicians ever called to the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, Joe received honorary degrees from Mount Saint Vincent, Dalhousie, St. Thomas and Cape Breton Universities as well as a National Aboriginal Achievement Award. She was also featured in television and radio documentaries, and wrote for several aboriginal and non-native publications.

"She fought hard and long to try to have some justice for the Mi’kmaq realized," says Mi’kmaq author and consultant Daniel Paul, a friend of Joe’s for 30 years. "I think she saw poetry as a way to express her concern about the way the Mi’kmaq were treated, the racism they suffered. She was very instrumental in inspiring people to strive for excellence in their life.

"She never hated anybody."

Joe’s books include Songs of Eskasoni (1988), Lnu and Indians We’re Called (1991), Kelusultiek (1995) and Songs of Rita Joe: The Autobiography of a Mi’kmaq Poet (1996).

That work continued until her final days.

"When we came home, we found papers still on her typewriter," said Sylliboy. The work found by her family was October Song, a poem with many revised copies still scattered near her work area.

The final copy reads: "On the day I am blue, I go again to the wood where the tree is swaying, arms touching you like a friend, and the sound of the wind so alone like I am; whispers here, whispers there, come and just be my friend."

Funeral for Joe will be held Monday, 10:30 a.m., in Holy Family Church. She is survived by nine children and was predeceased by four including one in infancy.


Atlantic Canada's First Nation Help Desk

Material used with permission of Help Desk

March 29, 2007

Help Desk Honours Memory of Rita Joe

"Generosity of Spirit" are the words that best describes Rita Joe. Wela'liek, Rita. You have made us richer for your time with us.

From the very beginning of Atlantic Canada's First Nation Help Desk, Rita Joe helped to empower children and youth, believing in them, and in us, before we really believed in ourselves!....

Rita presenting copies of her new book "We Are the Dreamers"
to the Help Desk Staff. The books were used as prizes for Help
Desk student contests. 2000

Rita presenting prizes to contest winners - We'koqma'q, 2000

Frank's Song

Someday my dear I'm going away

The other place my home is there

I'll be around where lovers they play

In your dreams I love you every day

Someday my dear I'm going away

Not meaning to but Niskam* say

Then so true it happens that way

He went away and now I am so blue.


So true are words of love

We take them all, not knowing when they will end

So true of what we say

We build it in our heart, for now it is so good.

Someday my dear I'll be seeing you

The words I say they are so true

Someday my dear, the stars they will shine

Together then, our love will show for all the time

Someday my dear together we'll roam

The loving land where lovers go

Someday my dear our dreams they will fly

When love is true, the dreams we share they do not die.

~ Rita Joe, January 30, 1997

Copyright © 2000 Rita Joe


Happy Dreams

(The Song in the Heart We Give Away)

Did you know happy dreams come along each new day

When we sing loving words, loving words to everyone

Then the words come alive and we feel oh so good

And the song in the heart we give away

Did you know happy dreams also come from loving you

When we learn goodness knows, goodness knows, what is true

Did you know happy life we live on a sunny day

And the song in the heart we give away

Did you know happy dreams can also fade away

When we learn, not all things come together well

Did you know sadness comes when we feel and do not know

And the song hurts the heart just for that day

Happy dreams we can build, once the sadness is gone

Memories good, store away, and all the loving had

They are there, just for you and your own loving way

And the song in the heart we hold each day

Happy dreams come alive, what we have on each new day

Feeling good comes your way, if you hold it that way

Happy dreams they are there, all the time, all the time

And the song in your heart will always shine

Did you know happy dreams come along each new day

When we sing loving words, loving words to everyone

Then the words come alive and we feel oh so good

And the song in the heart we give away

~ Rita Joe, February 11, 2000

Copyright © 2000 Rita Joe

... Rita's many works will live on. Her poem, "I lost my talk" resonates across the generations and appears in text books. Much will be said about her. Many will remember her instructions that it is time for the next generation to take up the struggle. Oh, that it could be done with as much grace and dignity again!

Wela'liek (thank you), Rita Joe.

Atlantic Canada's First Nation Help Desk http://www.firstnationhelp.com/