An interview with Rebecca Thomas, Halifax’s poet laureate

Rebecca Thomas, 31, is Halifax's poet laureate until April 2018/Photo by Stephen Brake

When Halifax Regional Municipality named Rebecca Thomas it’s poet laureate for 2016-2018, she became the first Mi’kmaw to hold that position it was first established in 2001.

Since then, the 31-year-old has written and read poems that have sparked change with Halifax Regional Council.

In April, Thomas read a poem she wrote called, Not Perfect, about Edward Cornwallis, Halifax’s founder who also issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaw men, women and children.

Her poem prompted council to pass a motion to review how it commemorates Cornwallis on municipal property such as streets and parks.

Thomas, who grew up just outside of Moncton, N.B., is a member of the Lennox Island First Nation, P.E.I. She has a master’s and bachelor’s degrees in social anthropology from Dalhousie University.

She is currently a student services advisor at the Nova Scotia Community College’s waterfront campus in Dartmouth, N.S. recently spoke with Thomas about her role as Halifax’s poet laureate. What has it been like for you being Halifax’s Poet Laureate?

Rebecca Thomas: “It’s been very busy. It’s been a huge honour. It’s been a little overwhelming but all in all, it’s been a very positive experience.”

“A lot of people like my poetry. I never thought that I would have people like my poetry. It’s a really unique experience to have people come up to you and say, ‘I love that poem you did’ or ‘This is  my favourite of your work.’ I never had that before, to have, I guess, fans, for a lack of a better word.”

“And I feel like I make an impact, too, because people have come up to me and said, ‘I never thought of this before’ or ‘Now, I’m more interested in wanting to know more about reconciliation or Indigenous issues.’ So, it feels really great to have people like my work because they like my work and to have people like my work because it makes them think critically.” How did you go from being a person who studied anthropology in university to being a poet?

Rebecca Thomas: “That’s a good question. I get that often. For me, this is my big dirty secret that as a poet laureate, I don’t actually want to be a poet. I want to be a change-maker and I happen to use poetry to do that.”

“So everything that I learned and studied and I learned about myself in my degree made me want to make change because I don’t have to tell you that Indigenous people have had a pretty rough go of things for the last few hundred years. And so I realize that nobody is going to want to sit down and read a (Master of Arts) thesis or a Ph.D dissertation outside of the academy.”

“I had the opportunity to write a creative submission piece for a professional development class for work and I wrote a spoken word poem. (It was) very much influenced by El Jones and her style and her impactful protest poetry and it was well-received.”

“So I wrote another one and it was well-received. I did it at an open mic and it was well-received. I did a couple open mics and then I was invited by El Jones to feature at the “Word Iz Bond’s Speak! series and it kind of took off from there.”

Rebecca Thomas hosting a poetry slam at the Grad House on Dalhousie Campus in March/Photo by Stephen Brake What can you tell me about the poems that you’ve really enjoy performing since you became poet laureate?

Rebecca Thomas: “It really changes. Right now, I feel very powerful and privileged to perform a piece called, Pennies, which is about missing and murdered Indigenous women. It’s framed as though it was an advertisement for the Hudson’s Bay company.”

“I ask people to bring in a newspaper clipping and, you know, you’ll get a discount dress or a black suit or something like that towards your funeral. It talks about the commodification of Indigenous style, women and our bodies and things like that.”

“That’s one of the pieces that I really like to perform because it brings awareness back to the women in our culture.”

“And then I also like performing from time to time just funny pieces that have nothing to do with Indigenous issues because I may be an Indigenous person but I also do other things, too.” How are your poems received in Halifax Regional Council?

Rebecca Thomas: “Some people love them. Others, I think, probably roll their eyes or bite their tongues because I know there are some councillors who are not a fan of my views on things like honouring Cornwallis and those sorts of things.”

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions, you know. It’s just when those opinions become harmful and when those opinions are based off of power. You’ve got these people who’ve been in council for years. They have a lot of power. They have a lot of privilege. They have a lot of clout.”

“So, if they use that clout to keep other opinions pushed down, well then that’s an issue.” When you perform your poetry, what do you want people to get out of it?

Rebecca Thomas: “That there are different perspectives. Indigenous people are here. We’re still here. We’re thriving. This notion that we’re these ancient people or that we’re disconnected from our culture or we’re extinct. We’re here everyday and it’s so, so very important that people see that.”

“I can’t speak for all Indigenous people. I’m just one person. I can’t represent all the Mi’kmaw people. I can’t represent all the Indigenous people in Canada but I can represent my experience as a first voice so people can hear what an Indigenous first voice sounds like.” What are you hoping to achieve in Year 2 of being Halifax’ poet laureate?

Rebecca Thomas: “Oh I don’t know, maybe shake a few trees. We’ll see.

“I think I’ll probably be more unapologetic, especially because this notion that Canada 150, which is ludicrous to me to say that this country, this land is only 150 years old when we’ve been here for thousands of years.”

“I’m obviously not going to be hateful and slanderous but I’m certainly not going to hold my tongue when it comes to my beliefs on Indigenous injustices.”

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About Maureen Googoo 263 Articles
Maureen Googoo is an award-winning journalist from Indian Brook First Nation (Sipekne'katik) in Nova Scotia. She has worked in news more than 30 years for media outlets such as CBC Radio, the Chronicle-Herald and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Maureen has an arts degree in political science from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, a journalism degree from Ryerson University in Toronto and a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.