Rita Joe

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Rita Joe
BornRita Bernard
(1932-03-15)March 15, 1932
Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia
DiedMarch 20, 2007(2007-03-20) (aged 75)
Sydney, Nova Scotia
GenrePoetry, Memoir
Notable awardsNational Aboriginal Achievement Award, 1987; Member of the Order of Canada, 1989; Queen's Privy Council for Canada, 1992; Poet Laureate of the Mi'kmaq people
SpouseFrank Joe
ChildrenEight children; adopted two boys

Rita Joe, PC CM (born Rita Bernard; March 15, 1932 – March 20, 2007) was a Mi'kmaq poet and songwriter, often referred to as the Poet Laureate of the Mi'kmaq people.


Rita was born March 15, 1932, in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Her parents were Joseph and Annie Bernard, both of the Mi'kmaq First Nations, and Rita had four siblings. When Rita was five years old, her mother died, and she spent several years in foster care before returning to live with her father and siblings at the Whycocomagh reserve.[1] In 1942, when she was ten years old; she became orphaned. As a result, she was sent to the Shubenacadie Residential School. There, she was forbidden to speak her native language and practice her culture. She had to face physical and mental abuse until she turned sixteen and finished school. Rita had to learn her native language again by talking with Mi’kmaq speakers (people from her same tribe). Shortly after she finished school, she worked at different jobs in Nova Scotia, and then, she moved to Boston. There, she met Frank Joe.[1] In 1954, she married Joe, had eight children and fostered two boys.[1]

In 1978, her first book, The Poems of Rita Joe was published. Over her lifetime she published six other books, including the autobiographical Song of Rita Joe, in which the poet outlined some of her experiences at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.

In 1989, Joe was made a Member of the Order of Canada; in 1992, she was called to the Queen's Privy Council for Canada (she is one of the few non-politicians ever appointed); in 1997 she was awarded the National Aboriginal Achievement Award.

In the years before her death, Joe suffered from Parkinson's disease.[2]

Legacy and influence[edit]

Rita Joe has been known for speaking the truth about reservation schools, and how it is to live in a "White World" as a Native American. She is also a clear example of an ambassador for people and for promoting Native Americans' art and culture in the United States and Canada.

In January 2016, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa premiered I Lost My Talk. This was a performance based on Joe's poem I Lost My Talk. The film was directed by Barbara Willis Sweete. The performance sparked a light on the legacy of residential schools in Canada.[1]

In 2018, Halifax transit named a new Halifax Harbour ferry the Rita Joe.[3] In 2023, Joe was the honouree of Nova Scotia's Heritage Day, and a campaign was launched to represent her on Canada's $20 bill.[4][5]

Rita Joe Memorial Literacy Day[edit]

Each year, Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni First Nation, Nova Scotia, holds a literacy day in Rita Joe's honour, with the "hope that students would be inspired to read, write, and create their own stories"[6] and revitalize the Mi'kmaq language.[7] The first Rita Joe Memorial Literacy Day was held in 2012. Festivities include a writing contest for students and visits and workshops from professional writers and artists.[7]

The Rita Joe National Song Project[edit]

Inspired by Rita Joe's poem, "I Lost My Talk," and her challenge for indigenous youth to "find their voices, share their stories, and celebrate their talents," Canada's National Arts Centre launched the Rita Joe National Song project. The project called on youth from five First Nations' communities in Canada to write, record, and create a music video for a song based on Joe's poem. The videos were debuted along with the premiere of the National Arts Centre Orchestra's "Spirit Prevails," also based on Joe's poem, in January, 2016, in Ottawa.[8][9][10][11] Reviewing the NACO's multimedia performance, Natasha Gautier stated, "The writing is eminently accessible but never simplistic or condescending. [Composer John] Estacio has a wonderful sense of orchestration, evocative but not cliché."[12]


  • Poems of Rita Joe (1978)
  • Song of Eskasoni (1988)
  • Lnu And Indians We're Called (1991, ISBN 0-921556-22-5)
  • Kelusultiek (1995)
  • Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi'kmaq Poet (1996, ISBN 0-8032-7594-3)
  • The Mi'kmaq Anthology (1997)
  • We are the dreamers: recent and early poetry (1999, ISBN 978-1-895415-46-9)



  • "Indians have in the past been portrayed as the bad guys, I write the positive image of my people, the Mi'kmaq."
  • "When I started the first time writing, I was trying to inspire all minorities with my work. To make others happy with my work is what I wanted to do."
  • "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."[13]
  • "The positive outlook that I have worked on for so long now turns me off the negative. I look for the good."[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Filice, Michelle (May 27, 2007). "Rita Joe". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2019-08-13.
  2. ^ "Rita Joe". Atlantic Canadian Poets' Archive. Retrieved 2019-08-13.
  3. ^ "Rita Joe joins Halifax Transit ferry fleet". Baird Maritime. 2018-10-29. Retrieved 2023-10-02.
  4. ^ Greene, Crystal. "Mi'kmaw poet Rita Joe is Heritage Day 2023 honouree". The Signal. Retrieved 2023-10-02.
  5. ^ Rubin, Josh (2023-01-25). "Canada has never had an Indigenous woman on its currency — this provocative campaign is trying to change that". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2023-10-02.
  6. ^ "3rd Annual Rita Joe Literacy Day | Mi'kmaq Kina'matnewey". kinu.ca. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  7. ^ a b "First Nations groups work to revitalize Mi'kmaq language". The Chronicle Herald. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  8. ^ "Rita Joe Song Project". nac-cna.ca. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  9. ^ "NACO premieres work inspired by Rita Joe's poem of language lost". www.cbc.ca. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  10. ^ "Voices lost and found: Young Aboriginal musicians pay tribute to Rita Joe at NAC". www.cbc.ca. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  11. ^ "NAC Orchestra to present works inspired by Alice Munro and Rita Joe". The Chronicle Herald. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  12. ^ "NACO review: Estacio's new score gives voice to Rita Joe's words and spirit". Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
  13. ^ Joe, Rita (1996). Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi'kmaq Poet. University of Nebraska Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780803275942.
  14. ^ Joe, Rita (1996). Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi'kmaq Poet. University of Nebraska Press. p. 48. ISBN 9780803275942.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]