Prince Edward Island Community·CBC East Coast: all in

Memories of a Mi'kmaq girl on Prince Edward Island

The first Indigenous poet laureate of Prince Edward Island, Julie Pellissier-Lush was invited to share her perspective in CBC East Coast "all in"

Julie Pellissier-Lush on legacy, community, and hope

A woman with long dark hair, tanned skin smiles at the camera. She stands against a brick wall wearing a red hat and shirt.
The first Indigenous poet laureate of Prince Edward Island, Julie Pellissier-Lush was invited to share her perspective in CBC East Coast "all in" — a monthly CBC newsletter featuring stories and ideas that reflect all the ways we're different on the East Coast. (ITC PEI)

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The world on Prince Edward Island was always so big, so beautiful — the air was fresh and clean, the clouds made pictures for us that were better than any television, and in the summer the shores called to us like our parents at supper time, with anticipation and joy knowing what the journey would be.

We were not rich when I was little. Everything is a luxury when you don't have enough. Potato fields around our little green house gave us food, and there was always extra work in the fall to help us get ready for winter. The only good thing about being poor in Prince Edward Island back in the 1970s was that it seemed like almost everyone was poor, so you never had to feel less than anyone else. Everyone struggled and sacrificed to get by.

What was even harder than being poor was being Indigenous and poor. We did not have the right to vote until the 1960s, just a few years before I was born. 

A woman wears traditional Indigenous clothing, holds a hand drum in one hand while outside. The background is blurred.
Julie Pellissier-Lush is from the community of Lennox Island, an island off Prince Edward Island. (Submitted by Julie Pellissier-Lush)

History books say it was because under the Election Act, you had to own property to be able to vote. Living on reserve, land was owned by the federal government, so we were not able to ever own the land our houses sat on. We got a certificate of possession to indicate the house we lived in was ours, if we didn't live in a band house owned by the First Nation. 

A connection — precarious depending on the season

Lennox Island itself is an island off Prince Edward Island, and that is my community. It was not until 1973 that the causeway was built to connect it to the mainland. Before that, everyone on the island had to take their life in their own hands — literally during certain seasons — to get across the water to get to the local store nearby, to get what they needed for food and supplies.  

In the deepest parts of winter, it was OK to cross with a horse or sled. 

During the summer, there was a ferry to take people across and back. During the fall and the spring, many of our community members lost their lives as the ice was forming and melting. A documentary called The Ice Walk is dedicated to all those poor souls who never made it across.

A group of young people all hold hands as they make a large circle outside on the grass. The circle around a woman holding a hand drum.
Since Julie’s childhood, things have changed and Indigenous people are once again celebrating their culture, and sharing teachings with communities around them. (Submitted by Julie Pellissier-Lush)

Since then, things have changed. We, as Indigenous people, started celebrating our culture again. The first Mawi'omi (Pow wow) was celebrated June 21, 1986, in Johnson River.

In 2019, I became the first Indigenous Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island, and on that day,  all of my role models helped me celebrate: my sister, chief Darlene Bernard, my friends, Senator Brian Francis, Dr. Judy Clark, elder for the UPEI Mawi'omi Student Centre, and more. 

Looking around the room, I knew people would look at me and think that if I can do it, everyone can be whatever they want to be — no matter where your culture, religion, age, or socioeconomic status. I will be the person who will show the province anything is possible. 

A woman is on stage speaking at a podium with microphone. She wears a red regalia.
Julie became the first Indigenous Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island in 2019. (Submitted by Julie Pellissier-Lush)

The reason? I am not the best poet. I am not the best speaker. I am Indigenous. I am a woman. I worked hard, showed up when needed and always did what I said I would. Now I have changed how people see age-old systems of selection. Opportunity is now right there for those who know they can achieve anything, and that makes me very happy.  

Since that time, I have visited over 1,000 schools, daycares, organizations, community groups, boards, and post-secondary education institutions to share our story of being Indigenous, and how the world is opening up for more opportunities for all of us.

Small island, big feelings

The world on Prince Edward Island is still so big, so beautiful, the air is still fresh and clean, I look to the clouds to find the pictures that are better than the television, and in the summer, the shores still call me to run in the sand and find the perfect shell. 

A black and white photo of an Indigenous woman wearing regalia smiles and poses for the camera as she hand drums.
Julie is part of a theatre group which recently produced their first CD with the Mi’kmaq Heritage Actors. (Submitted by Julie Pellissier-Lush)

Most stories children are told are fairy tales with happy endings. However, most of our stories are passed down about who we are as Indigenous people. Few stories have happy endings, but were told to us over and over so we would remember and share them with our children and grandchildren. It was our way of passing down our truths, from one generation to another.

Now, more of our stories are having the happy endings we need to give us hope for the future.

ALL ABOUT JULIE 

Who or what inspires you and why? 
My sister, Chief Darlene Bernard inspires me. She gets up and serves her community with love and pride, energy and heart, every day. I know being a chief is not easy, it is a job that goes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She continues to make Lennox Island First Nation a community everyone is proud to call home, from the warming station in the school, to the new fire hall and daycare, to the women's shelter, and garden business for the community to get fresh vegetables all summer. She makes decisions, writes proposals, attends meetings, to ensure our community stays fresh and vibrant, safe and always looking to the future.  

What do you enjoy most about living on the East Coast?
The salty sea air and the fact you can drive anywhere on Prince Edward Island. The red beaches where you can spend hours looking at little critters crawling on the sea floor, and the white sandy beaches where you imagine how far the water really goes out before more land appears. The beaches connect me to who I am, remind me who my ancestors were as they protect me.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Becoming the first Indigenous poet laureate of Prince Edward Island. I love being the first — for some reason that makes my heart sing, doing something that has not been done before. Being able to share my stories, my culture and traditions makes me so very proud. 

What is your motto?
"We will make it work." This comes mostly from my theatre group. One of the crew gets sick before show time? We will make it work. Someone forgets their line on stage, don't worry we will make it work. There is no parking, or the stage is too small, or someone forgot their regalia? We will make it work. The funniest thing is, it always does. 

A woman with dark hair stands outside of a building happy, holding her arms up with an eagle feather in one hand and a hand drum in the other. She is wearing a red Indigenous regalia and hat.
Julie says more Indigenous stories are having the happy endings needed to give hope for the future. (Submitted by Julie Pellissier-Lush)

What is your favourite wintertime activity on the East Coast?
I am part of the River Clyde Pageant, and just before Christmas we have the River Clyde Solstice Walk. It is done on the darkest night of the whole year in New Glasgow. As you walk, the forest is filled with twinkly lights, lanterns, a choir, and magical beings that feel like they come alive. It ends with cups of hot chocolate and fire dancers! There is nothing more magical than that.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Cameras. I have so many of them. When a new one comes out I have to get it, they help me hold on to the many wonderful adventures my life takes me: capturing the best performance at Confederation Centre, a sunset show at Cavendish Campground, the hot air balloon festival in Sussex, traveling across the ocean to hold ceremony for our veterans who fought during the Dieppe Raid, flying over the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver.

Who are your favourite writers?
When I was younger my favourite writers were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Their work shaped my mind to always look for magic. Now that I am older, I also look for writers that speak to me as an Indigenous woman, like love Rita Joe, Daniel Paul, Rebecca Thomas, Stella Shepard.  

Can you share a recent event or experience that gives you hope for positive change? 
Recently my theatre group produced their first CD with the Mi'kmaq Heritage Actors. It's called Sing Dance Drum and we pass them out at every show as gifts to the audience. About a month ago, I was at an event and a young family came over and asked if I was one of the people on this CD. I said yes, and they told me their little ones always want to listen to our group sing Mi'kmaq chants, sing-along songs, and drummings whenever they are in the car. The two young children started singing our round dance song, you-way-hi-ya, for me, and it made me so happy that one project could inspire this family to listen to our songs, when not long ago we were not allowed to sing in Mi'kmaq to drum or to dance.

What advice would you give your future self?
If there were no more tomorrows, if everything ended right now: this life I have would still be considered a very good life that I am living. Everything else, any extra time is just a gift.

Where can people connect with you?
Facebook 
Twitter
Instagram
YouTube
TikTok
LinkedIn

Julie's Picks
1. Watch: Diggstown. Keep an eye out: Julie's sons were extras in a gym scene as boxers.
2. Listen: Mainstreet PEI with Matt Rainnie. Keep an ear out: Julie's often interviewed by Matt.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Pellissier-Lush is a Mi’kmaq storyteller, actor, drummer, best-selling author, and the first Indigenous poet laureate for PEI. With her son, she hosts an Indigenous show on Eastlink. Through her books, songs, poetry and other creative pursuits, Julie celebrates and shares the powerful stories of the Mi’kmaq on PEI.

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