Interview With Lennox Island Mi’kmaq First Nation Director of Culture and Tourism: Jamie Thomas
By Taz Dhaliwal | June 21, 2023
© Jen Derbach
By Taz Dhaliwal | June 21, 2023
© Jen Derbach
Since the summer of 2016, Adventure Canada has been visiting Lennox Island First Nation with guests on its Sable Island, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, and the Magdalen Islands: Atlantic Island Odyssey expedition, providing a guided cultural tour of the Mi’kmaq community. As visitors are welcomed into the community, they are given the chance to participate in community activities, learn about the art of crafting beaded jewellery and woven baskets, make traditional Bannock break, and listen to stories passed down through generations, since time and immemorial. It’s a unique experience the community shares with visitors from all over the world to teach others about their history, culture, and way of life.
Approximately 450 residents call the community home, while countless thousands of others can trace their roots back to the region. Archaeological evidence and oral traditions indicate that the presence of Indigenous peoples on the shores of Malpeque Bay date back 10,000 years.
During my second summer working with Lennox Island, I got a call from Summerside and they said that there was a small-ship expedition cruise coming in and it was one of the first small cruise ships that was coming into Summerside. They wanted to come to Lennox Island and I was pretty excited because I thought, well, this is a great opportunity, but we really didn't know what to expect either. Like I said, it was the second summer I was working with the band and just trying to infuse tourism into the community.
We worked with the bus company, and we put together a plan and we just went with it. The Adventure Canada guests came in on a cold, windy, and rainy day. There were some challenges with them actually getting off the ship, but they managed and when they got to Lennox Island, everybody was really eager to just make things work. Although, we were dealing with wind and rain, people didn't mind walking around the community with their umbrellas and raincoats on, it worked out really well.
Then Adventure Canada called and said, “Hey, we want to come back!” So, we did it again and we absolutely love the partnership that we have with the team, because it’s very grassroots focused, and meaningful.
It's interesting, because when we think about tourism in our community, it's something that the community needs to support, so, community buy-in has been essential for us in our overall success. We actually started doing cultural projects throughout the community and we had this project called “Communities At Risk,” which I absolutely hated, because it just sounded so negative and I thought, okay, so we'll run this project, but we're going to call it “Communities at Risk of Losing our Culture”, because the idea was that we wanted to bring back cultural traditions and activities leading to community bonding.
We spun it a little bit and people would come into the cultural centre for sessions every evening. Throughout the week, we would have different sessions, such as drum making, whittling birds with wood, beading, quilling. We did everything that you could possibly imagine. We brought experts from other communities into Lennox Island to share things that we didn't know about.
Sarah Myers from Lennox Island First Nation doing quill work
Every time we did that, I would explain to people that I was basically using them and they would be like, “What?,” and I would say, “I'm using you, because eventually you will be the people we utilize to provide these experiences.”
The community members were learning, and they didn't realize what the outcomes could potentially be, which is what we have now. We have numerous artisans within our community, who are well-versed in their specific style of artwork. The community members that are now equipped with new skills are able to help us compensate for some of the capacity issues we have throughout the summer in regards to employment, because we are seeing a steady stream of people coming in just to visit the museum. Then we also have our experiences that are pre-booked. When staff are busy with visitors who are on the museum tours and similar activities, we have other community members that we can call on to help with the one-off experiences. This not only provides those within the Lennox Island community with job opportunities, but overall, tourism also assists our community from an economic standpoint. This is why it’s incredibly important that the experiences we can offer others are based upon active community involvement.
Although, I must say, when we talk about partnerships, when I first started working with Lennox Island, I thought, “Oh, we can do anything? Yeah, we'll say yes to anything.” Then I quickly realized that I can't say yes to everything anymore. For a couple of reasons. Number one is because you start to feel a little used, because people are checking boxes and that's not what it's about.
After the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation was officially formed and there were the findings in May, a few years ago out in British Columbia, those 215 unmarked graves—the number of people who are looking to educate themselves about Indigenous experiences has grown.
However, sometimes we can't meet that requirement because people are not in a space where they can provide the education or the awareness or their personal stories to people, because they are in different places when it comes to their own healing journey. This is why we have to be very careful about that.
In working with Adventure, Canada, we've recognized that these groups are coming to learn. From what we've experienced, from not only the team members who are a part of the experience, but also the visitors that are quite open minded, we know that they want to learn, and they want to ask questions. We get the sense that they want to do better and, so, I think that's why the relationship has really become valuable. It’s the team members who are leading by example, in terms of their experience with us in the community, and it's worked out well. There's a great level of respect that we feel we’re shown by the folks from Adventure Canada.
© Jen Derbach
Adventure Canada guests visiting and learning more about the Lennox Island community from Mark Ellands
In terms of even just coming into the community to visit, we’ve had conversations about protocol, we’ve had conversations about different things leading up to the visit. Not everybody does that, some people just show up and expect certain things to just happen. This is actually one of those relationships where we talk about it in a positive way, because of how we've grown from that initial conversation to where we are now.
Adventure Canada is also very generous when it comes to contributions back to the community. For example, the first visit that we had, they provided us with a donation to go towards our culture centre and towards the church. We were blown away, we didn't expect that. It was more than just an offering, but an appreciation for welcoming the group into our community.
During their last trip, there was a donation of hockey gear equipment in relation to Project North, which was mind-blowing. When you see the amount of gear that was taken off that bus and brought into our community, for members of our community to be able to go out and just participate in a sport that freely, it was amazing.
The one thing that I always tell people is that, Indigenous tourism needs to be led by Indigenous peoples. When we talk about authenticity, and I always talk about this, when we look at labour shortages, it's a lot different for me, because the labour shortage that I'm faced with is within my community. Where on a provincial level, it's a bit different, anybody can come in and work at an Anne of Green Gables, let's say, but when it comes to Lennox Island experience, it needs to be like-minded people from hopefully our community or surrounding communities, or at least from Mi’kmaq. Which is why we have a little bit more of a challenge than other people when it comes to having that representation.
But, we still have to be respectful of what it is that we offer, and when I think about making Bannock and clams, which is one of the experiences that we offer, we don’t just say we're going to do this, it is actually fostered from a conversation that we had with our elders.
© Dennis Minty
Lennox Island community member, Kelly Sark, making Bannock bread
That experience literally sprang from a conversation we were having in the culture centre one about food security and sustainability. We were talking about, what our ancestors used to grow on Lennox Island, what were some of the animals that were present.
These two elders were kind of off to the side having a sidebar conversation about what they remember, traditionally, from their grandmothers and their aunties making Bannock in the sand, because it was something we weren't really allowed to do back in the day, because the idea was that you didn't have any connection to your Indigenous culture, any of those kinds of activities. I started listening to these elders and I was like, “Oh, that sounds interesting, okay, that's a great idea.” I thought, “Well, let's do this!”
So, we set it up and then we realized that the elders were kids when this happened, and in asking them, “What do I do?” They're like, “Oh, well, we don't know.”
But, we figured it out together, we did it in a way that was piloted, and we said, “Okay, we want visitors to come, but we also want community to come.”
As visitors started to come, they interacted with community members who shared their stories of what it was like, and what they remembered, and how, you know, “My giju’ (mother), and someone else used to do it like this.”
All of a sudden, the community started to relive experiences that happened decades ago, and that’s when you get community buy-in. That’s when we knew that the community is okay with us doing this experience, and that it can truly benefit them.
© Jen Derbach
Adventure Canada guests making Bannock bread as part of one of the cultural experiences they get to take part in
We've made sure that the community understands what we're doing. We also know that there are certain things within our culture that cannot be exploited, such as ceremonies and those kinds of things. It's a lot of balance, and it's a lot of discussion with our elders, and just talking about what is proper and what is not, and they support us.
This is why we involve community in the activities that we do, why we involve our elders in our offerings, those kinds of things. I think that's key and to make sure, when we think about reconciliation, we need to remember that not everybody is at the same place.
We've had people come in who ask my tour guides, let's say about their personal opinions when it comes to residential schools. Well, some of them are intergenerational survivors of residential schools. They may not be in a position to be able to answer those questions, because they haven't dealt with it the same way that someone like, let's say myself has. There needs to be some appreciation that is given when it comes to where people are in their healing journey. You have to approach things very respectfully, and with an open mind, along with a willingness to learn. If you don't approach things like Indigenous tourism, especially, with that kind of mindset, then we won't succeed.
That's a loaded question and tough to answer. I can just give some examples of what we’ve experienced in the past.
At one point in time, I had a lady come and she was irate because she couldn't find what she was looking for and I didn’t understand, she was from a different country. She said, “They're nowhere, I can't see them, where are they?” Turns out she was looking for Indigenous people dressed in regalia, in buckskin and furs.
This happened a few years ago. When visitors are coming into our community, number one, they're welcome. We welcome people to come because, one thing that we've heard is that sometimes people think that they need to be invited by the chief or someone else from the community. That’s certainly not the case, people need to have an open mind. Don't come with preconceived notions, ask questions, and really just embrace the surroundings while you're there. I always tell people while I’m conducting activities that there is no such thing as a silly question, because that's how we learn. If you're not asking the question, then there's a chance that you continue to assume, so why not ask the people who know, so that you eliminate the assumption?
© Dennis Minty
Lennox Island First Nation Director of Culture and Tourism, Jamie Thomas, speaking to visitors.
We have people who are all at different places. When I think about residential schools, about our history when it comes to that, about how certain institutions played a role when it came to the removal of our children from communities, I also think about how some of our people have really come so far in terms of healing, and just reconnection to culture, our stories, ceremonies, and traditions. Then I think about some of the people who haven't had the opportunity to do that, and who still struggle with things like addictions and mental health.
I think we embrace everyone in different ways and we appreciate where people are. For me, it's always about meeting people where they're at and making sure that people understand that I'm no better than any of them and they are no better than me.
We all have a history, we all have a past, but that doesn't define who we are today. That terrible past that we went through as Mi’kmaq people or as Indigenous peoples, yes, it was absolutely horrifying, but it doesn't define who we are today. In some cases, we have grown, we have healed, we have some people who are never going to talk about that history and everybody's in a different place when it comes to their healing journey.
But, we have worked really hard to bring back our cultural ways, we've worked really hard to bring back our ceremonies, we've worked really hard to be proud of who we are as Mi’kmaq people. I always go back to thinking about the sense of pride, the sense of accomplishment. I also think about the people who haven't been able to do that, because they're still dealing with the trauma. They're dealing with it in a different way than how I would deal with it, but at the end of the day, we've come a really long way and that needs to be celebrated.
© Dennis Minty
Jamie performing a traditional and sacred smudging ceremony
We are an island, off an island, and one of the questions that I always get from people is, “How long does it take us to get there?” And I always say thirteen seconds, because there's a causeway that connects us. When I think of that, we’re surrounded by water, we're surrounded by the Malpeque Bay and we've lived in that area for thousands and thousands of years. We have a connection to the land that is unlike any other. We live in a territory that is full of medicines and plants, and that’s significant.
When you think about our culture, and when you think about things like fishing and how we survived on fishing, being on an island, being surrounded by other islands, they act as natural protectors for us. There's archaeological evidence of our people being found on those surrounding islands, that dates back thousands of years ago.
One time I remember someone asked a question of one of the community members and it was along the lines of, “Why do you care? Like what makes this home?” We care because our people survived on this land for thousands of years, and we have that connection to the land. Our people, our families, our ancestors lived and died on this territory, in this community. We have a connection to all of those people, before we had access to the bridge, people would come to Lennox Island to seek our medicines, because they were more powerful than the medicine that they could obtain elsewhere.
It's just like being from a small town and knowing everyone, sometimes it can be good, sometimes not so great. But, people in the community are open and welcoming, and just really want to do good, and want other people to see how proud they are of being Mi’kmaq, how proud they are of the land we live on, how proud they are of the successes and the growth in the community.
When you think about it, there are approximately 450 people who live there, and we've got a lot of infrastructure for the community and there are great benefits because of that infrastructure. There's a strong sense of pride when it comes to our people in the community. I'm really glad that other people see that when they come visit because we welcome people with open arms.
Our treaties were signed in peace and friendship, and we continue to live in that mindset. It's all about peace and friendship, and we're very hospitable. We want to make sure that people's needs are met when they are in our community, because we want them to leave with a smile on their faces, and a memory in their minds that they're not going to forget.
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