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Corner Brook sisters only too glad to openly celebrate the Mi'kmaq culture they had to hide as kids

Keith Cormier performs a smudging ceremony Monday morning on a juniper tree planted at Majestic Square in Corner Brook in recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which is Thursday.
Keith Cormier performs a smudging ceremony Monday morning on a juniper tree planted at Majestic Square in Corner Brook in recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which is Thursday. - Gary Kean

It’s a story that many older people of Mi’kmaq descent know all too well.

When they were children, the truth of their bloodline was not something to openly celebrate, lest they run the risk of being ridiculed or ostracized just for being Indigenous.

Things have changed significantly in that regard in western Newfoundland with the rising prominence of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band in recent years.

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Despite the bitterness of not everyone feeling they have been treated fairly by it, the enrolment process to create the band’s founding membership has certainly instilled a strong sense of pride in many who have always known or have newly discovered their Mi’kmaq heritage.

It is more common now at public events throughout the region for the host to acknowledge the event is taking place in traditional Mi’kmaq territory or for the event to commence with Indigenous drumming and smudging ceremonies.

Hiding their culture was something sisters Marilyn Matthews and Verna Rose were asked to do by their mom when they were children. Their mother made the effort to tell them individually their grandmother had been a full-blooded Mi’kmaq, but urged each one of the children to never tell a soul about it.

Matthews recalled being called “Indian” and “squaw” when she was a little girl wearing her hair in braids. She asked her mother why she was being called those names and it saddens her to think of the reply she got.

“She said, ‘really, you are,’” recollected Matthews. “My mother was afraid to speak out, but now we have this wonderful culture.”
Matthews and Rose are now proud members of the Corner Brook Aboriginal Women’s Association. They meet regularly to drum and sing and celebrate their Mi’kmaq heritage not only at meetings, but at every public opportunity they have.

“I think it’s wonderful we can be recognized as an Indigenous people now and to not be afraid anymore to come out and acknowledge who we are,” said Rose.

On Monday, they were among the association’s drumming group members who took part in a series of flag-raising ceremonies in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which takes place Thursday.

Matthews said every time they drum at an event like Monday morning’s, they know they are increasing the general public’s awareness and appreciation of the Mi’kmaq culture.

“We’ve learned so much in these last few years,” said Matthews. “We can celebrate our culture openly and without fear of reprisal. It’s a wonderful feeling when you get into the drumming and singing. You feel more accepted.”

It’s not just about being accepted and no longer having to hide, said Rose.

“It’s great that we can give back to the community,” she said. “As they accept us, we will give back twofold.”

Thursday is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada.

Here is what the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band has planned to celebrate the day:

- The band will commence National Indigenous Peoples Day with a sunrise ceremony at Margaret Bowater Park at 5 a.m. Thursday.

- A free community breakfast will follow at the Qalipu Community Room at 1 Church Street at 8 a.m.

- There will also be events at Margaret Bowater Park, including a barbecue and live entertainment, from 11 a.m. until around 3 p.m. The celebration at the park will also feature Indigenous craft vendors and cultural workshops.

Source: Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band

Members of the Corner Brook Aboriginal Women's Association's drumming group perform a welcoming song Monday morning for those gathered at Majestic Square in Corner Brook for a flag-raising and tree-planting ceremony in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which is Thursday.
Members of the Corner Brook Aboriginal Women's Association's drumming group perform a welcoming song Monday morning for those gathered at Majestic Square in Corner Brook for a flag-raising and tree-planting ceremony in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, which is Thursday.

Margie Wheeler of the Corner Brook Aboriginal Women's Association's drumming group places some soil on a juniper tree planted on the Majestic Lawn Monday morning in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day Thursday. Waiting their turn to help plant the tree are fellow drum group members, from left, Karen Loder and Verna Rose.
Margie Wheeler of the Corner Brook Aboriginal Women's Association's drumming group places some soil on a juniper tree planted on the Majestic Lawn Monday morning in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day Thursday. Waiting their turn to help plant the tree are fellow drum group members, from left, Karen Loder and Verna Rose.

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