Rita Joe (1932-2007)
Rita Joe's childhood was about as hard as it could be, and her life as an adult was rarely easy. Yet hardships and suffering never broke her spirit. Rita always sought to overcome what stood in her way by living with kindness, strength and dignity.
Rita was born at Whycocomagh, part of the Waycobah First Nation, as Rita Bernard. Her mother died when she was five and Rita was put in a succession of foster families. Her father passed away when she was ten. Two years later, like many other Aboriginal young people of that era, Rita went to an Indian Residential School. In her case, it was at Shubenacadie. Rita had asked to go there for the room and board. But during the four years she spent at the school, Rita recalled later in life, the basic message conveyed to her and other Mi'kmaq was: "You're no good."
When Rita was given an opportunity to leave the residential school at sixteen after having finished Grade 8, she took it. She went to Halifax to take a job, then to Montreal and Boston, and had babies she could not keep.
It was in Boston that Rita met Frank Joe, whom she married. They would eventually move to the Eskasoni First Nation. Their life together had its difficulties, but Rita never stopped loving Frank. Together they raised 10 children, including two adopted sons.
It was in Eskasoni that Rita began to write, especially poetry. She strove always to tell the truth, for writing helped her move on from painful memories. Her first collection of poetry came out in 1978. More books followed in later years. In the prologue to her memoir, Rita Joe wrote: "My greatest wish is that there will be more writing from my people, and that our children will read it. I have said again and again that our history would be different if it had been expressed by us."
Rita Joe earned many accolades and honours as a writer, from far and wide, including the Order of Canada in 1990, membership in the Privy Council in 1993 and honourary doctorates from Dalhousie University (1993), University College of Cape Breton (1997) and Mount Saint Vincent University (1998). Unofficially, she is often called the "poet laureate" of the Mi'kmaq.