This blog post was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic when physical distancing and other COVID health and safety protocols were not in effect. The businesses and communities featured in this article may be once again welcoming visitors but please double check as some are only open with limited operations and others have not yet reopened.

Hockey is a passion for the Mi’kmaq people, who, I discovered recently, may have had a hand in inventing the game. According to the Windsor Hockey Heritage Society in Windsor, Nova Scotia, it was Mi’kmaq carvers who made the first hockey sticks from Hornbeam trees, and in Silas Tertius Rand’s 1894 book, “Legends of the Micmacs”, he describes a Mi’kmaq ball game known as tooadijik. Traditional storytelling backs this up, with tales of a stick and ball games played on the ice, and showing the root of so many of the modern game’s rules from skating from end to end of the ice to the act of scoring on each other, in what would become the net. So there’s a certain sense of homecoming that the next National Aboriginal Hockey Championships will be held at the Membertou Sports & Wellness Centre in the heart of the Mi’kmaq community. Twenty teams from across Canada will be taking part, both young men and women, with teams coming from as far afield as BC and the North.

I spoke with Kelsea MacNeil from Destination Membertou to find out more.

You’re hosting the National  Aboriginal Championships in May, tell me more. 

It’s so exciting! It’s the first time it’s been held in a Mi’kmaq community; we have the hotel, rink, convention centre right here, and the majority of the action from May 4-14th, will take place in Membertou. There are 54 games scheduled, and we anticipate some 600 players and volunteers coming from all across Canada to participate. This is such a wonderful opportunity for those athletes, scouts will be coming to watch and it’s high-calibre hockey that they will be playing.

What does it mean to the community to host the games?

We’re taking this opportunity to introduce to Membertou to all our visitors; our motto is ‘Welcoming the World’ and to have Indigenous people coming from all across Canada to be with us will be amazing. While the tournament is on, we will host our Spring Pow Wow on the first Saturday, and everyone is invited to come and learn more about Mi’kmaq culture and our community.  Hockey is a huge part of our community when our Sports and Wellness Centre opened in fall 2016, we even had the Stanley Cup on hand to get the celebrations started.

What’s planned at the Pow Wow?

We’ll have traditional drumming and dancing, from Fancy Shawl to Jingle Dress, we’ll also be running some cultural workshops for visitors to take part in so they can learn about life on Unamak’i, which is the Mi’kmaq word for Cape Breton. We do a very cool drum-making workshop, as well as traditional beading, and learning about foods such as Luskinikin—our take on bannock!

What’s the feeling in the community about the event?

Locals are extremely engaged; everyone is hockey crazy! We have plenty of dinners and ceremonies planned, all rooted in traditional practices. We know we’ll be packed over the duration of the championship, and we’ll also be live streaming the event too so people can log on and cheer along at home.

What can visitors expect of Membertou?

There are 13 Mi’kmaq communities across the whole span of Nova Scotia, and there are a real union and real celebration amongst the Mi’kmaq people here; they work together, the chiefs work together to make collective decisions on projects to move the communities forward. In other parts of the Maritimes, populations have declined, but within our communities, we’ve grown. The Mi’kmaq people are rooted in family and togetherness, and people are staying here within the community and working to make things better for the next generation. We even have Indigenous people coming from around the world wanting to learn from our economic success, at the heart of it all is our community; that’s the driver.

Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley

Nikki Bayley is an award winning international travel writer, and food and wine journalist. Originally from the UK, Nikki fell in love with Canada after a visit to Newfoundland in 2008 and moved to Vancouver in 2012. Nikki has been criss-crossing Canada ever since, learning more about the land and its peoples, and sharing their stories around the world.