The Birth of the Mi-Carême Centre
A Community Reborn from Crisis
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In 1994, the Acadian communities in the Chéticamp region of Cape Breton were in the midst of a crisis: the cod fishery had closed. For centuries, cod had been central to the region's economy, providing jobs for fishermen, buyers, and fish plant workers. With the closure, the communities felt a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
As a result of this crisis, the volunteer organization, LeMoine Development Association, organized community consultations in the Saint-Joseph-du-Moine parish. Their hope was that they could find ways to counter the devastating loss of the cod fishing industry. From these discussions, residents identified several things that would help revive the region. One of their goals was to highlight the Mi-Carême fête given the growing popularity of "Joe’s Scarecrows": several rows of scarecrows on Joe Delaney's lot, which paid homage to the local Mi-Carême fête. While they were still there, thousands of tourists would stop each summer to see these “mi-carêmes.” As such, the community felt that emphasizing the Mi-Carême was in keeping with Acadian identity and would create opportunities for cultural and experiential tourism.
Because of the severity of the fisheries’ crisis, the federal government offered funding for studies and programs to find ways to diversify the region's economy. With the community's new goals in mind and governmental support at hand, in 1995, LeMoine Development Association commissioned research and reports from experts in Community Development and Cultural Tourism. Their central recommendation was that the community build a Mi-Carême interpretive centre in the region. A further report in 2005 recommended the centre be located at the Harbour of Grand-Étang and be part of a cluster of sites including not only the harbour but also the Post Office, Co-op Store, boutique, café, as well as other potential tourism services.
To further these goals, between 1994 and 2015, LeMoine Development Association offered workshops for members of the community. Early workshops trained residents to make masks inspired by the Mi-Câreme fête, taught by an expert in the craft. Over the course of a decade, approximately 100 community members learned skills in mask-making. Other workshops trained a small group of fish plant workers to be museum workers. These trainees were women over fifty-five with little formal education who were displaced from their jobs in 2006. They learned techniques and best practices used in all types of museums and interpretation centres throughout the world. They explored many aspects of the rich heritage of Acadian culture and practised interpretive tools such as music, dance, visual art, theatre, and various forms of storytelling. They learned traditional Acadian dances and how to share this joyful activity with visitors. After exploring the world of Acadian legends, tales and real-life stories, they created masks and costumes to bring them to life in short, mimed theatre pieces. To understand the major goals of the Mi-Carême Centre, the trainees also helped prepare vision and mission statements for the museum. In short, these former fish plant workers learned skills they would need to use at their community's new museum.
In 2009 the Mi-Carême Centre opened with much celebration. Since then, the Boutique has sold approximately 10,000 masks made by local artisans with prices ranging from $30 to $350. The Centre also secured governmental funding to hire high-school and university students as interpretive and mask-making staff for tourist seasons. In 2015, the newly formed volunteer organisation, Société Mi-Carême, took over the Centre's operations. All of the people who have worked and volunteered at the Centre have become life-long ambassadors of Acadian culture. While the Mi-Carême Centre continues to face challenges, it remains a beacon of hope for the future of the Acadian communities in the Chéticamp region of Cape Breton.