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Mi’kmaq leaders launch final fundraising push for long-awaited cultural centre in Debert, N.S.

Mi’kmaq leaders launch final fundraising push for long-awaited cultural centre in Debert, N.S.
The Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre has been in the works for nearly 20 years, and a dream of Mi’kmaw historian Don Julien for even longer. The feasibility and sustainability. Elizabeth McSheffrey reports.

For more than 30 years, Mi’kmaw historian Donald Julien has envisioned a place where his people could share their stories.

It would be owned and operated by Indigenous people, he explained, celebrating more than 13,000 years of Mi’kmaw history in Nova Scotia. It would feature ancient artifacts, the truth about residential schools, tales from Mi’kmaw war veterans, and analysis of the Peace and Friendship Treaties.

Unlike many existing museums, it would not paint a monolithic picture of Mi’kmaw people by cramming nations and cultures into small exhibits, tucked away in a corner somewhere.

“I think what we really need is for the Mi’kmaw to be able to tell their own stories, ask their own questions about their own history,” he told Global News, sitting in his office at the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, where he works as the executive director.

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“People can understand their past history, because that’s what we want to do — collect as much information about our people.”

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The idea came to him in 1989, after he learned about major archaeological finds in Debert that had unearthed Mi’kmaq artifacts more than 11,000 years old.

He knew the area needed to be protected, so he assembled a team of elders in 2002 to advise on the project now called the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre.

Nearly 18 years later, that centre is close to being a reality, he said.

The land has been set aside to build it near the original archaeological sites, conceptual frameworks have been developed, and the feasibility studies are complete.

All that remains is about $5.2 million in fundraising — cash the team hopes will be raised in the next year or so, with help from the private sector and philanthropic organizations.

The initiative has already raked in more than $27 million, with support from both the provincial and federal governments.

“It’s very exciting but scary,” said Julien.

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“We’re so close. I’m just hoping that people will begin to realize, ‘Hey we need to understand this more, a lot better and maybe we should donate.'”

Mi’kmaw History Month
Mi’kmaw History Month

Over the years, many Mi’kmaq artifacts have been taken from Nova Scotia and placed in museums throughout Canada and the United States.

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The Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, which administers the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, is negotiating to get many of them back and making progress.

Julien is also inviting the public to donate any artifacts they may have, with a promise to give credit to the donors, and Tim Bernard, executive director for the upcoming cultural centre, said his staff will care for the artifacts themselves.

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“One of the foundational reasons we’re building the Mi’kmaw Debert Cultural Centre is for education. We need to educate not just our own members, but the general public,” he explained.

“It’s going to be a phenomenal place for the school system to engage with; it’s going to be a phenomenal place for visitors to come. We’re inviting anywhere between 36,000 to 60,000 visitors on an annual basis.”

Tim Bernard, executive director of the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, stands at the edge of the Mi’kmawey Debert Intepretive Trail in Debert, N.S.
Tim Bernard, executive director of the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, stands at the edge of the Mi’kmawey Debert Intepretive Trail in Debert, N.S. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

This month — National Indigenous History Month — the Conferacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq released a new “Build the Vision” video aimed at renewing donor interest in the project.

To donate or learn more about the project, click here, and to learn more about Mi’kmaw history in Nova Scotia, visit the Mi’kmaw Debert Interpretive Trail.