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Gaspesian Regional Heritage Summit Wraps Up

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--March 10, 2010

By all accounts, the 2010 Gaspesian Regional Heritage Summit was a great success. The day-long event, which took place on March 6 at the Galgoasiet Centre in Gesgapegiag, was organized by CASA, with assistance from QAHN and funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage. The summit brought together nearly one hundred representatives from Anglophone, Francophone and Mi’kmaq communities around the Gaspé Peninsula. Everyone at this conference had one thing in common: an interest in the heritage of the Gaspé and a desire to see it better funded.

Mi'kmaq elder William Jerome. (Matthew Farfan)The summit began with a spirit drum ceremony, performed by Mi’kmaq elder William Jerome. This was followed by words of welcome (in three languages!) and an overview of the conference by organizer and master of ceremonies Normand Desjardins of Heritage New Carlisle.

The keynote speaker for the event was Marie-Andrée Dufresne of the Gaspé Tourism Office. Dufresne spoke of the ongoing and highly ambitious restoration projects in and around the Gaspé town harbour. The title of her presentation was “Gaspé: Cradle of Canada.”

A musical interlude then followed, with the performance of an original song by local singer-songwriter Jeff Buttle. This was followed by a panel discussion, featuring eight speakers, each of whom described a different project or organization. QAHN executive director Dwane Wilkin, for example, spoke about heritage trails, while QAHN president Kevin O’Donnell focused on geo-tourism, with special reference to National Geographic’s recent selection of the Gaspé as one of the top 3 places in the world to visit. Matthew Farfan gave a demonstration of QAHN’s Gaspesian Heritage WebMagazine, while representatives from the Conseil de la culture de la Gaspésie, the Quebec Drama Federation, and the federal and provincial governments each gave presentations of their own.

Bernard Jerome, chief elder of the Gesgapegiag Mi’kmaq, described how his community’s oral history and belief systems (“some people call them legends”) had been kept alive through the centuries, and how Mi’kmaq spirituality had been “rejuvenated from the hibernation of time.” The Mi’kmaq, he said, are a “very resilient people.”

Jerome’s brother and colleague, William Jerome, performed with a ceremonial drum after which he addressed the participants. “This is a very special moment,” he said, “to be able to share with so much culture… we have to work together to save our heritage and our culture.”

Master of ceremonies Normand Desjardins attended to every detail. (Matthew Farfan)In the afternoon, Louise Cyr, of the Acadian Museum at Bonaventure, gave an overview of that museum’s activities, including temporary exhibitions and tea time. Roberta Billingsley, of CASA, then spoke of her work producing the cd, Gaspesian Storytelling Festival…Back to the Kitchen. “May you always be keepers of your culture,” she told the audience.

Volunteers with Restigouche 1760, an upcoming summer heritage festival on Chaleur Bay, were then introduced. Most of these people came dressed in period costume. There were women in wigs and hoop skirts, men in military dress, a cardinal, a priest, a bagpiper, and many others. There was even a shooting demonstration, which fortunately took place outside the building.

Summit participants then divided into four focus groups. Discussion topics included: “Heritage tourism and culture as an economic resource;” “Heritage education and developing culture through diffusion of the arts;” “The role of the agencies and funding programs;” and “Leadership and collaboration with a long-term plan for marketing.”

After the groups concluded their discussions, moderators from each group summed up the various findings to the general audience. Two resolutions were then put to the assembly. The first, which was presented by Dwane Wilkin, and which passed unanimously, proposed to create a “Gaspesian Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee.”

Staff and volunteers from CASA and QAHN. (Photo - Courtesy)The committee, which would be composed of people working in heritage in the Gaspé, members of the Anglophone, Francophone and Mi’kmaq communities, and government officials, would include Normand Desjardins (Heritage New Carlisle), Kim Harrison (CASA), Doug Hunt (a retired federal civil servant), Clément Deschenes (Quebec Ministry of Culture), Nadia Guerette (Réseau muséale de la Gaspésie), William Jerome (Gesgapegiag community leader), Solange Bourgoin (Canadian Heritage), and Serge Arsenault (Conseil de la culture de la Gaspésie). The committee would meet within the coming weeks and would work to build on the “spirit of sharing and mutual respect” among the different cultural communities that was exhibited at the Gaspesian Regional Heritage Summit.

A second resolution, which also passed unanimously, was proposed by Cynthia Dow, of the Gaspesian British Heritage Village (Britville) in New Richmond. Dow proposed that both government funding agencies and private enterprise be lobbied to provide ongoing operational funding to the many local cultural and heritage sites around the Gaspé that are in dire need of assistance. Dow, in a heartfelt appeal, spoke of how so many small, volunteer-led groups were living “from project to project,” and of how volunteers were “spending sleepless nights” because the organizations for which they had worked so hard were at risk of closing for lack of year-round funding. “Heritage,” she said, is essential to our lives; it is a part of us.”

Dow’s motion was enthusiastically applauded by Mary Robertson, of the Cascapedia River Museum. Robertson, who described herself as “an employee for a quarter of the year and a volunteer for three-quarters” due to a chronic lack of funding, said that museums “can’t keep existing year to year.” She added, “we need a committee to make sure that something is done.”

Following this, the first Gaspesian Regional Heritage Summit, there was much discussion about what the day had accomplished. The consensus seemed to be that the summit had been an excellent forum in which to bring diverse groups together under one roof. The feeling, however, was that much more needed to be done – and on an ongoing basis – to foster regional cooperation among the different heritage groups. In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, it was generally felt that a concerted effort had to be made to pressure government agencies to provide better ongoing operational support to the region’s highly under-funded heritage organizations.