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The Great Tradition of Storytelling Alive and Well in Gaspésie

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--September 24, 2013.

Gaspésie has always been about storytelling. The great oral traditions of the Mi’kmaq people which tell the creation of the world and of the oldest love stories on earth; the tales of the first explorers and pioneers who toiled in the fresh land to make a new home; the rise of Québécois culture and the farmers and fisherman who forged the lasting legacy of the Gaspé Peninsula, and the emerging artists and poets who are carving their place in the modern world have all been integral to the essence of the land.

Any east-bound traveller crossing into the Peninsula will understand that the inspiration derived for storytelling is written all over the land, and engraved in the earth itself. From the helm of Percé Rock, always looking to embark into the waters, to the rolling trees that sift into the rugged coastlines of Appalachia, one understands that while territories have changed, the relationship with the land remains the same: an interdependent and harmonious bond between humanity and nature that has been lost in so many other places today. No wonder that the stories of the Gaspésie people are so intimately connected with the wilderness around them, as well as the soil and sea which has become their integral bread and butter for centuries.

Ancient Origins:

Gaspésie’s roots in the art of storytelling are embedded in the heritage of the Mi’kmaq for whom weaving a tale is a staple of tradition: a favoured form of not only entertainment, but a creative way to preserve histories and instill a certain ethos amongst the community. An intuitive exploration of a world containing many planes of existence, Mi’kmaq stories hold great reverence for the diverse and sacred in nature and are improvised to draw out one particular aspect which the storyteller wishes to express. These great ceremonial events are often accompanied by noisemakers, drums, and hollowed-out logs to announce the commencement of a story, which can last hours into the day and night. Perhaps one of the most renowned of these tales is the Nova Scotian “Mi’kmaq Women Who Married Star Husbands” which inspired petroglyphs and other artworks, continuing the art of storytelling through other expressive mediums.

Settler’s Journal:

While the Mi’kmaq tales encompassed a spiritual and philosophical outlook on life, for the early pioneers of Gaspésie, storytelling became a fundamental key to enduring the long, cold winter nights and boosting morale in the founding communities. Though abundant in resources, life itself in the Gaspé Peninsula was still tough, and though resilient the first Europeans struggled to adapt. Storytelling would become a way to celebrate the grass roots heroism of the pioneers and preserve the culture carried over from the Old Continent; until literacy became more prevalent, it would be the key communicator of the people. It would also become an immersive chronicle of the sacrifices and hardships faced through settling in the New World, as well as a celebration of Gaspésie life and its joys and festivities – as well as profound local characters – which would engrave itself into the community’s history. The ritualistic nature of storytelling would evolve from its flourishing Mi’kmaq and settler roots to become one of the most revered, though still under-appreciated – artforms today, as well as influence a wealth of Québécois writers in numerous genres.

Modern Inspiration:

From the breathtaking poetry of Pierre Labrie to home-grown folk sensations like Laurence Jalbert, the sheer scope of artists, poets, and musicians emerging from the Gaspé Peninsula is astounding, and this lies at the core of a region which cherishes its artists. Gaspésie celebrates its long-standing legacy in storytelling every year with the much-anticipated and highly-acclaimed Festival La Virée, an autumn extravaganza showcasing some the region’s best storytellers, musicians, and dancers held in Carlton-sur-Mer.

The place is also home to a collection of galleries and work spaces like the Vaste et Vague Artists’ Centre, encouraging artists to experiment with new ideas and movements in art. It’s part of a growing base of community projects which inspire and empower people to explore the region’s rich heritage and pass it on to the following generations, an endeavour which has also incorporated the region’s many schools, arts centres and historic sites like the Site d'interprétation de la culture Micmac de Gespeg.