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WAYNE YOUNG: Island’s newest senator passionate voice for a proud people

Brian Francis will be sworn in Tuesday as Prince Edward Island’s newest senator.
Brian Francis. - Jim Day

Wayne Young

One of my earliest memories is sailing on a small fishing boat with my family to Lennox Island, a First Nation community along the northwest coast of the province.

For youngsters growing up in rural P.E.I. in the 1960s, there wasn’t a lot of cultural diversity. Most of our neighbours were of European descent who looked and sounded exactly like us.

So a pilgrimage to Lennox Island to celebrate St. Anne’s Sunday with the Mi’kmaq people was an adventure, no doubt, but also a chance to learn about the history and culture of the people whose ancestors first settled here more some 12,000 years ago.

Today, the fishing boat ferry is gone and a causeway links Lennox Island to the mainland, but St. Anne’s Sunday is still a major celebration and the reception is as warm and welcoming as it was decades ago.

When it comes to promoting greater awareness and understanding of the Mi’kmaq people and advocating for Indigenous rights, Brian Francis has been on the front lines for many years.

And since he accepted a Senate appointment from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last November, the former chief of the Abegweit Band in eastern P.E.I. has become a passionate voice for his people in Canada’s chamber of “sober second thought.”

Speaking recently with first-year Journalism students about his new role, Francis said it’s important that Islanders learn about and understand the history and culture of Indigenous people. He said the media has a role to play in reporting on positive stories in these communities, thereby helping to overcome misconceptions and negative stereotypes.

A wonderful story by Saltwire reporter Alison Jenkins a few weeks ago suggests that’s already happening. Mi’kmaq youth and elders visited a Summerside school as part of diversity week and the next day, Jenkins’ story covered most of the front page of The Journal-Pioneer. Students learned first-hand about the rich culture of this province’s Indigenous community through dance and drumming performances by youth in colourful native dress. A Mi’kmaq elder used student volunteers to demonstrate how it might feel when the Mi’kmaq traditional “family circle” is broken down, something he said happened years ago when children were taken away from their families and put in residential schools.

“We had a lot of things happen in our history that were imposed by the governments,” the elder told Jenkins. “To me, it’s our job to teach the young ones what happened to our people so it never happens again.”

In some cases, young Islanders are leading the way. If you haven’t already seen it, take a few minutes to enjoy a heart-warming Mi’kmaq version of Canada’s national anthem – part of a nine-minute documentary titled O Kanata – sung by Grade 4 students from Mount Stewart Consolidated School.

Francis, who accompanied the students on guitar, said it’s another way to create awareness about Mi’kmaq’s distinct culture “and really that we’re all one.”

As Francis points out in the documentary, Canada has not always been kind to Indigenous people and before there’s meaningful reconciliation, there has to be a greater awareness and understanding of people in First Nation communities.

And although the Mi’kmaq have been here for thousands of years, Francis said many people still don’t know who these First Nation people really are.

Hopefully, that’s starting to change – it’s not before time.

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