Mi'kmaq Artist Lives His Culture

Aboriginal Affairs

June 26, 2007 11:09 AM

NOTE: The following is a feature story by the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.

The kids in Millbrook First Nation know him as "that guy who draws," but to scores of other people, Gerald Gloade is much more than that. He's an artist, and a particularly gifted one, but he's also a storyteller, the project development officer for the Mi'kmawey Debert Project, and one of Nova Scotia's civil servants for the last quarter century.

The only graphic artist for the Department of Natural Resources, Gloade's art adorns interpretive signs and maps around the province. He's since been seconded to the Office of Aboriginal Affairs and doesn't get paid to draw anymore, but art is one of the things that just came naturally.

"Everyone in my family is artistically inclined," he says. In fact, all his siblings have gone on to incorporate art into their careers.

For Gloade, landing the graphic design job with the government when he was a 19-year-old student at the Truro Vocational School was a dream come true.

"My work involved the top four things in my life," he says. "Hunting, fishing, wildlife and art."

Gloade grew up in the Millbrook Mi'kmaw community with his father as its first elected Chief. His family sold handwoven Mi'kmaq baskets from a shop on the side of old Highway No. 2. This was before the TransCanada was built, and Gloade can remember it took up to 20 minutes to cross the road.

Gloade's upbringing was unique in two ways. He was born with a hole in his heart and he was raised by his grandmother. The physical limitations imposed by the heart condition meant he spent less time with other kids and more time absorbing his grandmother's stories. Looking back on it, he feels blessed to have had that experience.

"I just wouldn't have the knowledge I have today without my time with her." According to Gloade, stories can easily become fragmented when passed down through the generations. "In this case though, there was no generation gap."

On fishing trips, he and his grandmother walked from Millbrook to Hilden, a journey of about five kilometers. His grandmother would tell him stories all the way there and all the way home -- tales about the community, about the land, and about people. She also imparted the Kluskap (Glooscap) legends to him, including the account of how the Five Islands in the Minas Basin were created.

Now a storyteller himself, Gloade uses these same tales to capture the imagination of students and tourists across the province. Through presentations at schools, in the community, and, most recently, to the Canadian Archeological Association Conference, Gloade helps keep the traditional Mi'kmaw culture alive.

"I'm passing on a piece that I don't want to see missed or lost," he says.

It's helpful that suddenly cultural tourism is booming.

"People are starting to have more cultural awareness," he says. "A lot of the travellers we get now are European and Asian visitors, looking for that cultural experience."

Those in the tourism industry may hear the cash drawer opening, but for Gloade it's all about getting the word out.

"If it helps us get our story out there in print or on signage in these areas, that's great. I'm behind that 100 per cent."

The location of the Kluskap legends are even being entered in the Global Positioning System (GPS), so participants of the popular "geocaching" phenomenon can locate the sites. "You can take your families there, listen to the stories firsthand, and see and smell and feel the place," he says.

Road-tripping around the province is a hobby of Gloade and his family. It's vitally important to Gloade and his wife Natalie to help their two sons connect with the sacred sites of the Mi'kmaq around Nova Scotia, as well as acquaint them with the areas of the province -- Bear River and Kejimukijik National Park -- where their ancestors originated.

"When we go canoeing down the Mersey River, we tell our sons that the blood that runs through their veins has been on this river for thousands of years," says Gloade. "That means something."

Last summer, the family logged 3,000 kilometres collecting stones of cultural significance from traditional gathering sites around the province. It's a part of Gloade's latest passion, archaeology, and it is being fuelled by his position as program development officer for the Mi'kmawey Debert Project.

Twenty kilometres from Truro, Debert is home to the oldest archaeological site in Canada, and one of the most significant sites in North America. The artifacts that have been collected there date back more than 13,000 years and paint a fascinating picture of indigenous life at the end of the last Ice Age.

Gloade puts these numbers into perspective by noting that King Tut lived 3,300 years ago.

"We all grew up thinking that was ancient history -- Mi'kmawey Debert is four times as old!"

The plan is to build a cultural centre on the site to house Mi'kmaw artifacts on behalf all 13 First Nation communities in Nova Scotia. Don Julien, executive director of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq, spawned the idea and is relying on knowledgeable and passionate people like Gloade, who he handpicked to be part of the team, to help pull it off.

"Gerald has spent a lifetime collecting information and knowledge that he's now able to apply within the Mi'kmawey Debert Project,"
Julien said. "He brings a tremendous amount of traditional knowledge to our project, as well as a willingness to share what he knows. One of our elders calls him Apsikate'j, the Messenger, and Gerald fits that role. It's his job to tell our stories."

For Gloade, story telling is all about passing the Mi'kmaq culture on to children.

"That's what it's all about -- the kids," he says. "They're what's left after we're gone."


Media Contact: John Soosaar
              Aboriginal Affairs
              E-mail: soosaajo@gov.ns.ca