Listen to Mi’kmaq storyteller Julie Pellissier-Lush

Bold = Julie Pellissier-Lush

Italics = sound effects

Regular = Fiona Steele (narrator/storyteller)

Julie Pellissier-Lush: Storytelling isn’t a job, it’s a way of life

Sounds of a beating drum, followed by a Mi’kmaq singer. More singers join in.

Kwe. Hello and welcome. My name is Julie.

Julie Pellissier-Lush has a long list of things she does.

I am currently the knowledge keeper at L’nuey. It's a rights-based organization. We work at finding ways to fight for our rights as fishermen, as Mi’kmaq people across Mi’kma’ki.

Mi’kma’ki is the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq. It includes PEI, Nova Scotia, parts of New Brunswick, the Gapse Peninsula and Newfoundland.

I'm also the poet laureate of Prince Edward Island. I came to that title in 2019. It was just shortly before my birthday in February. And since then, I think I've done over 300 different events, promoting writing, the written word, reading, and working very closely with PEI library services.

Julie is also the author of two books, and a founder of the theatre group Mi’kmaq Legends. She has a lot on her plate, but it all boils down to one thing: storytelling.   

Welcome to Island Digital Voices. Today we’re learning about the person behind all the stories, how Julie became the storyteller she is today.

Julie was born in Summerside and spent her first few years on Lennox Island until her mom passed away when she was a toddler.

Lennox Island is one of the two First Nations on PEI and is home to many Mi’kmaq people today.

After my mother passed away, it was just my dad and I and he worked on Lennox Island.

Julie told us about special trips she and her dad would take every once in a while, to the Sandhills on Hog Island. Hog Island is an island less than a kilometer offshore Lennox Island. As a single parent, Julie’s dad worked a lot but always found time to take her on adventures.

And when he had time off, he literally would just shut down everything and pack up a bag.

Sounds of a boat engine starting, followed by the sound of lapping waves.

We'd get in a little dory, and we'd go from Lennox Island Wharf, ride to the sandhills, and we pull up the dory and anchor it nice and secure so it wouldn't leave. And we’d tie, like, a two liter of milk to a rope and throw it in the ocean because it would stay nice and cold in the ocean.

Sounds of light wind and tree leaves rustling. Ocean sounds fade out.

And then we'd have our loaf of bread and cheese and some cereal and things and put up a tent. And then the rest of the weekend would be him and I adventuring on this island. And sometimes we would go and get cranberries, sometimes we’d get blueberries, and we would just be walking around there, and it would be our time. It'd be my time with my dad. So, it meant so much to me.

Sounds of light wind and trees, followed by sounds of a crackling fire.

And then what we would do in the evening is he'd start a fire and we'd have a little bite to eat. And then to make sure that I got nice and sleepy, he would tell stories to me. And later on, like, just even maybe a few years ago, he said to me that out of all the kids that he had, and he had three more after me, he said that I was the only one that he actually created stories for. And I thought that's really, really special. He would talk about the animals that we'd see around the around the island. We’d  talk about the fish in the ocean, we’d talk about the stars in the skies, and he would just let his mind go. And he would create these amazing stories. And my favourite, of course, was about Ruddy the fox. I love little Ruddy the fox. He was, like, the main character in most of the stories.

Sounds of wind and rustling leaves fade out.

You can find a story about Ruddy in Julie’s book, “Mi’kmaq Campfire Stories of Prince Edward Island.”

When Julie was a little older, she and her dad moved to Ontario. It was in Ontario that Julie began telling stories herself.

I think I was probably around eight years old when I started wanting to tell stories. And coincidentally my father at that, at my age, then was at Queen's University, and he was taking his degree in theology there. And so, he was practicing to become a storyteller of sorts as well – being able to stand on the pulpit and have a sermon that people would be able to listen to and enjoy and understand. So really, he was crafting his skill. And as he was doing that, I was sort of crafting mine.

When she was 10, Julie’s dad got a job as a minister at a church in Grandview, Manitoba.

So we moved out to Grandview and then there he actively worked as his first official job as United Church minister in the little church that they had there. And I felt that that's sort of where it all started. I realized that I, if I had some pre-rehearsed lines in my head that I could very easily be able to move from one thing to another, with the congregation members that I would see every day, pretty much in the community. It was a smaller community. So I would say, you know, oh, what weather we're having? And then they would, you know, repeat it back to me. And then we'd have a conversation or, you know, what do you think about the Liberal Party? Here I am 10 years old and talking politics and religion with all of my father's congregation members. And they were amazing. And they opened more opportunities for me to share stories.

By age 12, Julie was writing her own stories.

And I think I was about 12 years old when for Christmas, the only thing I wanted was a Smith cornea typewriter. And it was a very advanced for its time. It came with these little papers that if you wanted to erase something that you typed, you slip the paper in, and then you retype those letters, and it would actually make those letters, the ink disappear. So I was feeling that I was pretty, you know, fantastic. And I started writing my first short stories on those and started with poetry on those. And it was about the same time that I started songwriting. And so I start, I wrote my first song around then. We were traveling from Grandview to PEI and we passed a little town called Blind River, just around Sault Ste Marie in Ontario. And it made my brain just flash with all these stories, all these things that we could have potential in, and I decided to write my first song.

Flipping forward to today, it’s no wonder Julie has so many creative projects on the go because it’s always been this way for her. Beyond telling stories for an audience, Julie often writes poems and songs to process what’s happening around her.

In the spring of 2021, she wrote one called “We Will Remember” about the John A. Macdonald statue that used to sit in downtown Charlottetown. It was removed in June 2021.

John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first Prime Minister. He’s also well-known as the man who introduced the Residential School system in Canada. In these residential schools, thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families, abused, and stripped of their culture and language. So, while John A is the father of Confederation, he’s also the architect of Canada’s Indigenous Genocide.

Soft music fades in as Julie begins to read her poem.

“As I sit under the stars with my ancestors, I close my eyes and listen to the sounds all around me. I hear their voices in the stories of the past. We will remember. Maybe it is the intergenerational knowledge we share, with each cell screaming with the pain that is still there. We will remember. They point to the ones in power, who started this whole plan to end their Indian problem and take away our land. This part of our history began with one smart but greedy man. We will remember. To try and take away our pride, to make us no longer want to be alive, take away our children and cause them so much pain, treating our women with hurt and disdain. We will remember. Starvation, assimilation, brutality, and all in your name. Breaking our spirits was just part of your game. We will remember. Our traditions, our language, our culture, our dance, our music and our song, were they a threat to you? Were they really so darn wrong? Did taking them away make you feel strong? We will remember. You will not be remembered for just the great things that you did. Our people endured all your cruel laws. And we lived. We will remember. If I could walk into the past right now, today, I would find him and whisper gently in his ear. Your true story will come out. Because we are still here. And we will remember.”

Music fades out

Storytelling is an integral part of Mi’kmaq culture, and Julie says that stories are how she shares the knowledge and truth of the past. It’s how she teaches people, especially the children she talks to when she visits schools.

Sounds of Julie talking and singing to students inside a school gymnasium

When the kids in the classroom all come up and say, you know, I really appreciate you coming here – and it's amazing. Our community is so small, our indigenous community is so small, that when I go to these places, I can sort of scan the room and I know which ones from our community or which ones could be from our community. And then usually after I see one or two in a class, I'll get a message from their mom or their dad and they'll say you know, so-and-so said that you were in their class and they really loved your stories.

Music fades in and gets louder

And if they leave singing a song or two in Mi’kmaq, then I've done what I went there to do – to share my culture, share my stories, share my songs and make sure that they carry on. And it creates, you know, that first maybe baby steps to have some sort of reconciliation in the future, where people know each other’s stories.