The Pen Is, Indeed, Mightier than the Sword: A Poet’s Take

Poets often connect events from the past to relevant contemporary issues to reflect upon how the early stages of life carve a person into the individual they are bound to become. Rita Joe, a poet and author who aligns with such a picture, solemnly accentuates one way in which her childhood was molded by her surroundings at school and how that informed her readiness to take charge of herself in the poem “I Lost My Talk.” Published in 1988, this poem was originally featured in the collection Song of Eskasoni: More Poems of Rita Joe and has since been included in the book Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’Kmaq Poet, published in 1996 (Joe, Song of Rita Joe 55, 188).

Rita Joe

A Mi’Kmaq, Joe was born in 1932 in the eastern Canadian town of Whycocomagh, Cape Breton to a family of many children with insufficient financial resources (17-18). As mentioned noticeably at the outset of her story, Joe was very young when she became an orphan and began a spiral through the foster home and residential school systems of Canada (Whitehead 9). Acknowledging Joe’s personal history adds an emotional depth to inform the understanding of the source of her feelings and the somber tone established in the poem.

Rita Joe’s poem “I Lost My Talk,” composed of four stanzas of free verse and simplistic, repetitive vocabulary, follows a young girl attending the Shubenacadie school to depict her relationship with an unnamed – presumably upper-level – figure of authority. The speaker metaphorically indicates that an aspect of her inherent individuality, her “talk,” has been stolen and replaced by something foreign that belongs to the authoritative figure, and she desperately wishes to be permitted to discover it again (Joe, “I Lost My Talk”). Further, Joe informs readers that various other aspects of her individuality were replaced as well (7-8). The storyline of this poem stems from the malicious history of Indigenous residential schools and their impact on the lives of the children who called them home, recounted in They Came for the Children: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples, and Residential Schools (2012). As a person who was in a previous residential school, Joe’s writing reflects the government’s ambition “to assimilate Aboriginal children into broader Canadian society”; they would “continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic” by “[denying them] the right to speak their language” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 1, 86, Moore, Leslie, and Maguire qtd in 12). Ultimately, “residential schools…were established…to further [the government’s] long-term aim of ending the country’s treaty obligations by assimilating its Aboriginal population” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 12). Throughout the poem, Joe transitions from a girl forbidden by the residential school to act on her own accord into one who seeks rediscovery of her true self to share that self with the world. In actually writing from the Indigenous side of the story, Joe’s articulation of her internal suffering offers insight into what was actually taking place in residential schools from an inside-looking-out perspective.

Joe’s Residential School at Shebenacadie

Joe’s poem precisely outlines what I have referenced about the residential school system and generates a sense of realization and anger amongst audiences, directed at whomever is brainwashing students. She reveals what can be interpreted as the lack of acceptance for Indigenous peoples like herself by sharing a story of dehumanization, how she quite literally became a stranger to herself. Her writing and her final request to reclaim what has been stolen from her must not only be analyzed in conjunction with Canada’s history of assimilation, but also with how it parallels and precedes pessimistic arguments against present multiculturalism issues that I will address.

Throughout her poem, Joe utilizes figurative language to tell a very personal story, signaling deep implications regarding what it may have been like to be a child at a residential school. She strategically opens with a metaphor to explain how, while there, an inherent piece of her was erased; Joe says, “I lost my talk / The talk you took away / When I was a little girl / At Shubenacadie school” (“I Lost My Talk” 1-4). Here, the poet is reflecting on how Indigenous peoples were told by those with authority at the residential schools to never talk in their Native language (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 24). Joe’s decision to use the word “lost” in reference to her “talk” suggests that some part of her inherent humanness is gone, probably unintentionally. This creates an abstract description, as speech is not something that can physically be displaced. Further, Joe seems to be left confused, when she describes “The scrambled ballad, about my word” (“I Lost My Talk” 9). Imagining her thoughts and feelings as messy and without purpose, implied by the negative associations of the words “lost” and “scrambled,” provides insight into Joe’s headspace during her schooling and how that reflects what I have already outlined about residential schools.

Also, in relying on the pronoun “you,” as opposed to ever referencing a specific person or group, Joe develops an accusatory tone, constructing an antagonistic persona for those responsible for the residential schools, who are distant from herself and her peers. Such a tone may create a feeling of resentment or anger – directed at the “you” – that is similar to Joe’s. In addition, Joe goes on to set up a narrative between a robber and a victim, portraying this “you” figure, who readers interpret to be those commanding the schools, as a thief. In reference to her “talk,” she writes that “You snatched it away” (Joe, “I Lost My Talk” 5). The connotation of the word “snatched” implies that something was stolen quickly, greedily, and without her – the victim – even realizing. This diction not only furthers the feeling of confusion Joe seems to suggest, but also increases the divide between Joe and her school. This theft, of sorts, is so important in the opening of the poem because it shows the goal of the residential schools to “kill languages” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 1). Her illustrations set the stage for comprehending why it is so significant for people like Joe to get their “talk” back. In using this metaphor, Joe strips down to the basis of what was happening to Indigenous peoples at this point in history, which will both relate to and contradict our understanding of policies concerning multiculturalism that would soon arise.

The implementation of new multicultural policies in Canada has echoed a similar chronology across Indigenous populations, compared to Joe’s illustration of her speech restriction during her residential school time. In his chapter “Where the Voice Was Coming From,” featured in the anthology, Across Cultures, Across Borders: Canadian Aboriginal and Native American Literature (2010), author Armand Garnet Ruffo walks readers through a short history of multicultural legislation and how it has afflicted Indigenous peoples (173-75). For example, Ruffo describes the 1969 White Paper

Prime Minister Trudeau

released by Prime Minister Trudeau “to abrogate treaty and Aboriginal rights and sweep away hundreds of years of Canadian historical record” (173). He further critiques the feelings of Trudeau towards Native peoples, as it was his intention “to make Aboriginal people equal to other Canadians” (173). Eventually, as new multicultural legislation was introduced by Trudeau that failed to acknowledge Indigenous peoples as founding nations, these policies ran the risk of burying said peoples behind the fact that multicultural laws were even present (174-75). Ruffo’s arguments make it obvious that he is especially critical of Trudeau’s multiculturalism. This foreshadows his scrutinization of “the way in which language has been used as a strategy to subordinate the colonized” in Canada, which, I would argue, is Joe’s main claim in her poem (177).

In drawing connections to Joe’s experiences as one of “the colonized,” we see that her time in a residential school parallels Ruffo’s claims about the issues arising from today’s multiculturalism: as Joe surrendered something that belonged to her, so too did the overall Indigenous population. I think this forces us to question that if multicultural legislation does not see Native peoples in the truest form of their being, with them “slip[ping] under the umbrella of multiculturalism,” is it not just another version of the assimilation and rules against language at residential schools (Ruffo 175; Truth and Reconciliation Commission 1, 86)? On a similar note, I would argue that Joe could represent a real life example who expands Ruffo’s textual claim regarding how language was set in opposition to people like her. At the end of the poem, Joe comes full circle with her continued metaphor, leaving audiences with a hanging request; she replies, “So gently I offer my hand and ask” for the “you” figure in the poem to “Let me find my talk / So I can teach you about me” (“I Lost My Talk” 13-15). This phrase is framed as a question, as if Joe must obtain permission to tell about herself, and the continued emphasis of “you” implies that this is the figure who must grant permission. Her articulation of the phrase “let me” adopts a pleading tone, a sort of longing. Usually, when one needs to get approval, it suggests that they typically are not able to do something in the first place. This is recounted by one student in a residential school, for example, who recalls that “'[they] weren’t allowed to speak Cree, only French and English’” (Campbell qtd in Truth and Reconciliation Commission 69). This reinforces Joe’s implications of her inherent humanness being withdrawn. Yet, these concluding lines also suggest a forward-thinking approach, radiating a more positive vibe compared to the rest of the poem. This point signals the climax of Joe’s transition from being shut down in a residential school to showing a readiness to use her words to inform others about herself. Her final stanza sets up further complications that will emerge between her willingness to share personal anecdotes and the implementation of multiculturalism in Canada, while also proposing how this willingness can inform the future of multiculturalism.

In his 2014 chapter “Beyond Continuance: Criticism of Indigenous Literatures in Canada,” author Sam McKegney writes about Indigenous peoples in a context that parallels Joe’s character development throughout her poem. Published in the larger work, The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, McKegney looks at the bigger picture of Canadian multiculturalism and Indigenous peoples through the evaluation of literature. Through laws McKegney describes, like the White Paper and Canadian Multiculturalism Act, he contextualizes how “Canadian multiculturalism has worked to efface the unique historical conditions of Indigenous nations,” portraying “those nations as cultures . . . shards within the Canadian mosaic,” indicating that multiculturalism itself is restricting Indigenous peoples (411). It is imperative for McKegney to provide this background information. Yet, his purpose is to address the issue of multiculturalism through his claim for an Indigenous “movement beyond continuance”; this would utilize “Indigenous literary art as a provocateur of the type of systemic change that will create conditions in which Indigenous individuals can pursue the social, political, and cultural vibrancy that will propel Indigenous communities beyond continuance” (417; Armstrong qtd in 410). McKegney’s main argument mainly stems from Emma LaRocque, an Indigenous scholar, who argues that Indigenous literature is the facilitator that will make the Indigenous viewpoint meaningful and influential, and also correlates with Ruffo’s argument for writing “as a vehicle for expression and a necessary precursor to the Aboriginal literary movement of today” (LaRocque qtd in McKegney 409; Ruffo 172).

McKegney’s article expands upon the conclusion of “I Lost My Talk” in that Joe’s goal in getting her speech back initiates the sort of transformative action he outlines. Joe’s final phrases show her eagerness to welcome McKegney’s included responsibility for Indigenous peoples to take their written work, their “talk,” and employ it to advocate for the recognition of Indigenous legitimacy (Armstrong qtd in McKegney 410). Her desire to chronicle herself and her people represents the expression through literature that McKegney suggests will enable Native peoples to further themselves. In order to achieve this, McKegney considers the “‘deconstruction-construction’” idea of Jeannette Armstrong, an Indigenous writer, in that

profound positive change for Indigenous individuals and communities…requires the reconstruction of a new order [because] the decolonizing process…involve[s] not simply the tearing down of colonial systems but the creation of…alternatives built from the fabric of Indigenous worldviews and traditions. (Armstrong qtd in 417)

This new thought process grounds and justifies how McKegney’s claims regarding literature pick up where “the decolonizing process” leaves off. This argument basically implies that if Canada is to become more attentive to each of its citizens – Indigenous people included – the current form of multiculturalism that McKegney critiques is going to have to evolve, accommodating those like Rita Joe.

In reality, Sam McKegney is not the only author who sees potential for the works of people like Rita Joe. Daniel Heath Justice’s “Letter to an Emerging Indigenous Writer,” published in 2018, is intended to motivate Indigenous writers to share their personal accounts while also validating their presence as writers (Justice). One of his major takeaways for writers is that “if you have the gift, you’re called upon to use it for the People, your own and the rest” and that “your words are needed” (Justice). Ultimately, his charge and reassurance for Indigenous writers is in complete opposition with how not only the words, but other basic facets of Indigenous peoples’ personalities, were regarded in residential schools, as relayed by Joe. In her poem, she explains that “I speak like you / I think like you / I create like you” (Joe, “I Lost My Talk” 6-8). Joe is referencing this “you” again and integrating elementary verbs that form the basis of who we are as humans to show how other aspects of her individuality, beyond simply her language, were replaced by a commanding figure. The repetition of similar phrases insinuates Joe’s limited capacity to diversify her sentence structure; this mirrors her limited capacity to truly make sense of who she is, amidst the noise of her residential school. Joe’s writing aligns more closely with one of Justice’s opening lines that discern how “too often [Indigenous writers have] been told that [their] words don’t matter” (Justice). In his letter, it was imperative for Justice to first acknowledge this idea before he could begin his motivational mantra, as I described above.

Even still, Justice’s motivation situates itself with Rita Joe’s poem, her figurative language illustrating a figurative passing of the torch, if you will: Justice’s arguments in favor of the growth of Indigenous writers begin from the point where Joe’s final stanza closes. As Joe exhibits a readiness to inform about herself (“Let me find my talk / So I can teach you about me” (“I Lost My Talk” 14-15)), Justice grabs that feeling and runs. Despite Justice’s letter being written contemporarily, we can still see connections between the shared emotions of writers like Joe and Justice. Yet, herein lies the friction between the enactment of residential schools and multicultural legislation and then the response of Indigenous authors.

Fundamentally, examining Joe’s implications about residential schools in conjunction with the eventual development of multicultural laws in Canada, we see an overlap between the way she was handled and the way in which her people as a whole are managed today. That said, what we are left to ponder is what is at the core of each of these arguments concerning literature and Indigenous peoples: they all create tension with the history and the current appraisals of Canadian multiculturalism I have included from Ruffo and McKegney. Some people, like author Erna Paris, regard Canada as “the world’s most successful multicultural society” (Paris). From my perspective, after outlining the history behind Joe’s depictions of residential schools with more recent multiculturalism, I question and respectfully dispute, on some levels, the validity of this statement. With such tensions between the schools, Indigenous peoples and authors, and multicultural laws, I raise some doubts that Canadian multiculturalism is as impressive as it may seem. Yet, remembering how Joe “lost” pieces of herself in school and looking at current arguments attacking what Canadian multiculturalism is doing to Indigenous peoples, I would argue that Canada is going to have a very interesting, complicated, and tricky road ahead, as it comes in conversation with authors like Joe and Justice, the issues and ignorance of multicultural laws, and new ideas of how to apply literature. But, ultimately, I have realized that Joe’s poem is timeless in its applicability to Indigenous peoples and is integral for the evaluation of Canada’s history with residential schools and their current dealings with multiculturalism.


Works Cited

Works Cited
Joe, Rita. “I Lost My Talk.” Poetry in Voice, 2016,                                                                 Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.

– – -. Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’Kmaq Poet. Lincoln, Nebraska, University                of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “Letter to an Emerging Indigenous Writer.” Literary Hub,                              28 Mar. 2018,                        Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.

McKegney, Sam. “Beyond Continuance: Criticism of Indigenous Literatures in Canada.”                The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, edited by James H.                Cox and Daniel Heath Justice, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 409-426.

Paris, Erna. “Canadians Must Never Take Multiculturalism for Granted.” The Globe and 
              Mail, 7 July 2016, first ed.,                                                                                         must-                                              nevertakemulticulturalism-for-granted/article30773630/.                                                    Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.

Ruffo, Armand Garnet. “Where the Voice Was Coming From.” Across Cultures, Across
             Borders: Canadian Aboriginal and Native American Literature, edited by Paul                  DePasquale, Renate Eigenbrod, and Emma LaRocque, Broadview Press,                      2010, pp. 171-194.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. They Came for the Children:                     Canada, Aboriginal Peoples, and Residential Schools. Winnipeg, Manitoba,                     Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2012.                                                                [1].pdf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2018.

Whitehead, Ruth Holmes. “Introduction.” Song of Rita Joe: Autobiography of a Mi’Kmaq             Poet, University of Nebraska Press, 1996, pp. 9-10.