Joe, Rita

Rita Joe (née Rita Bernard), poet (b at Whycocomagh, NS 15 March 1932; d at Sydney, NS 20 March 2007). Rita Joe was born and spent her childhood on a Mi'kmaq (MICMAC) Reserve at Whycocomagh on Cape Breton Island. She lived with foster families after her mother's death when she was just 5 years old. Orphaned when she was 10, Rita Joe left the island at the age of 12 to go to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School on mainland Nova Scotia. Rita Joe later returned to Cape Breton to live on the Eskasoni First Nations Reserve, where she and her husband raised 10 children, including 2 adopted sons.

Rita Joe recalled being told constantly, at the Residential School, "'You're no good.'" She began writing herself to challenge such negative messages, which she encountered again as an adult, in the books her own children were reading. In the prologue to her memoir, Rita Joe states, "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's first collection of poetry, titled The Poems of Rita Joe, was published in 1978. Song of Eskasoni: More Poems of Rita Joe appeared in 1989, followed by Lnu and Indians We're Called in 1991. Rita Joe's poetry is included in the 1994 anthology Kelusultiek: Original Women's Voices of Atlantic Canada. Kelusultiek, which takes its title from a poem by Rita Joe and translates as "we speak," also includes the lyrics and music to 2 of her best known songs: "The Drumbeat Is the Heartbeat of the Nation" and "Oka Song." The latter was written in response to the 1990 land dispute and armed standoff at OKA. Poems from Rita Joe's now out-of-print first collection can also be found in We Are the Dreamers: Recent and Early Poetry (1999). Her poems cover a wide range of subjects, from the domestic to the spiritual. Her language is blunt but lyrical, and she captures both the anguish and elation of life. Rita Joe co-edited, with Lesley Choice, and contributed to The Mi'kmaq Anthology (2003).

Rita Joe is the subject of a 1993 NFB documentary titled Song of Eskasoni. Her memoir, Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi'kmaq Poet, was published in 1996. She relates both the terrible difficulties and the amazing accomplishments of her life in unassuming but compelling prose. Her autobiography also includes poetry, music, and photographs.

Rita Joe received many accolades and honours. She was a member of both the Order of Canada and the Queen's Privy Council for Canada. She received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and was awarded a number of honorary doctorates. Rita Joe is often referred to as the "poet laureate" of the Mi'kmaq people.