'I lost my talk': Prolific Mi'kmaq poet honoured in Ottawa symphony

A trailblazing Mi’kmaq poet known for writing “I Lost My Talk,” a simple yet heartbreaking glimpse at the cultural genocide suffered by First Nations people, is being honoured in an elaborate musical production.

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Rita Joe is one of Canada’s most prolific First Nations poets, and the National Arts Centre hopes to introduce new audiences to the late writer’s powerful prose in their most expensive musical production ever.

“This idea of losing voice, of losing identity, is actually a universal theme,” National Arts Centre music director Alexander Shelley told CTV News.

Originally from England, Shelley came up with the idea for “I Lost My Talk” – a multimedia experience that includes video storytelling, singers and a live orchestra – after learning about Joe’s story while researching online.

As a young orphan girl growing up in Nova Scotia, Joe was sent to a residential school.

“She said it was kind of like being in prison,” said Joe’s daughter, Ann Joe.

Joe got through the experience by writing poems, but she had to keep them secret from the school’s nuns. When her poetry was discovered, she would be ridiculed.

“The nun yelled at her, ‘Where did you get this?’ And my mother, she pointed to her head and her heart,’” Ann Joe said.

Despite the criticism, Joe didn’t stop writing. She went on to become one of the most influential First Nations writers of her generation. She received numerous honours throughout her lifetime and became a member of both the Order of Canada and the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada.

The new musical production, described as an exploration of “exile, resistance and displacement,” was commissioned for former prime minister Joe Clark’s 75th birthday. Clark has been considered a champion for First Nations issues and was recently named an honorary witness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Clark told CTV News that he was struck by the poem’s simplicity “and how few words it takes to tell a really basic truth.”

With a report from CTV’s Omar Sachedina


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