In NUVO’s poet laureate series, we speak with current poets holding the title as of 2016 for Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Charlottetown, Halifax, the Yukon, and Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate. Below, words from Halifax’s Rebecca Thomas.
After completing a thesis in social anthropology, Rebecca Thomas felt her writing wasn’t making a meaningful change in the world. She turned towards poetry to better convey her message, and began delivering deliver spoken word performances at local open mic nights, where she garnered the attention of then–current poet laureate El Jones in March 2016, who announced Thomas to be her successor the following April.
Can you speak a little bit about your experience as Halifax’s first Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) poet laureate?
This position is important to me because it shows a commitment from Halifax to have an Indigenous voice and person in a prominent position. I feel like I have a big responsibility to fulfill in order to be a champion of Indigenous voices. I think that even though there are so many unique and distinct Indigenous cultures across Canada, we face many of the same struggles. I’ve had Indigenous people reach out to me from across the country and say that my poems really touched them or resonated with their experience. However, with the positive responses also come voices who oppose me, but I consider those messages are telling me I’m doing the right thing. I also have to realize that when criticisms come my way, whether they are from people who are non-Native or community members, that they are only bringing one perspective—just like me.
I think Canadians forget that we, the Mi’kmaq, have the longest history of contact with colonization and yet our language and ceremonies are still here. I celebrate Treaty Day, and we have been responsible for many treaty and Supreme Court decisions that affect Indigenous people nationally; the Marshall decision, for example. I am very proud of that history, so to be able to speak about it and be heard in places that aren’t necessarily open and welcoming to Indigenous people is a great honour and challenge that I take very seriously.
How does all this play into your poetry?
I actually have a lot of fun. My poems are best delivered though performance. It’s not that they don’t read well, it’s just that what makes them so effective is the way I speak them. Most of [them] look at and examine Indigenous issues. I speak and people think I’m this bubbly, upbeat woman and then I deliver a hard-hitting poem about murdered and missing Indigenous women. I think it catches people off-guard and makes them sit up and pay attention. It challenges people and I know my words make people squirm because Canada is so polite. Our racism is much more subtle in certain ways so when I call attention to it, people get uncomfortable. I feel no need to make my listeners “more comfortable” with my work.
What is your ultimate goal as poet laureate?
My biggest goal is to have Native people talk to non-Native people and to share perspectives, empathy, and understanding. I think sharing my stories and the stories of an Indigenous history is a good first step in that process. We are all treaty people, after all.
An excerpt from Rebecca Thomas’s “I Am Honoured”
I’m saving my favourite for last.
The epitome of my righteous Indigenous wrath.
The Washington Professional Football team.
Whose name is the IV morphine to the politically correct beaten and battered ignorant majority;
A team name that is such an obvious racial slur.
A team name, that you’ll have to concur, is literally colour blind.
Because when it’s all done and said, I’m really more brown than I’ve ever been red.
A team name that alienates, isolates, racial perpetuates our inferior status.
Whose trademark is no longer has basis,
because even American copyright officers know that it’s racist.
A team name that views us with all with a narrowed minded sameness.
A team name that will never pass these lips
or cross my cutting tongue
Unless it is going to cut its supporters down by several rungs
because I am honoured
To meet other poets laureate, click here.