John Joe Sark - Heritage Recognition Award & Award of Honour
Few people have devoted more of their time to telling the story of the Mi’kmaq people in Epekwitk than the late John Joe Sark. That is why he is receiving not one, but two posthumous Heritage Awards.
The first – a Heritage Recognition award, is for his final book, titled Epekwitk: Stories and Histories of the Mi’kmaq Nation. In it, Sark begins by recounting the creation story of Epekwitk and the prophesy of the arrival of European settlers.
The book then covers Mi’kmaq cultural and political relations, the Mi’kmaq’s relationships with the French and the British, and the ways that successive settler governments have not upheld treaty rights. It details how the Mi’kmaq were reduced to poverty after their land was stolen and describes the dire living conditions of the Mi’kmaq living in Rocky Point and Morell in the early 1940s. The author shares his own experiences with institutional racism and addresses the ongoing impact of residential schools on the Mi’kmaq community.
Sark was not just an author and storyteller – he was a passionate activist, always pushing for recognition and respect of Indigenous rights and culture here on Epekwitk, as well as throughout Mi’kma’ki and Turtle Island. Starting in the 1970s, and continuing throughout his adult life, Sark fought to have offensive stereotypes removed from schools and public institutions here on Epekwitk. His activism was not restricted to this Island, however, and soon his efforts reached far beyond the Epekwitk’s shores.
In 1994, in his role as Mi’kmaq Ambassador to the Vatican, Sark met with Pope John Paul in Rome and presented him with a petition asking the Pope to recognize and apologize the harm done by Indian Residential Schools. Sark also urged the Pope to reject the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal grounds for early European colonization. Sark’s 1994 petition never received an answer, but his efforts at reconciliation with the Catholic Church and his fight for the recognition of Indigenous treaty rights continued right until his death in January of 2023. Folksinger Allan Rankin even wrote a song about his work, entitled “John Joe goes to the Vatican.”
Sark was a beloved Elder and spiritual leader. One colleague described him as “full of knowledge, full of teachings and always willing to share.” In 1984 he was appointed as Keptin of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, a post he held for the rest of his life. Sark also served on the United Nations Human Rights Commission and was involved in development the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He also served as a Tribal Judge in the Nova Scotia Court System and as an expert on Treaty rights both here in the Island and in Nova Scotia.
Last but not least, Sark was a dedicated educator, always working to share Mi’kmaq history and culture. He wrote books, but he did so much more. Sark was co-producer, executive director and artistic director of the 2003 film “Spirit World – the Story of Mi’kmaq”. He also helped create exhibitions on Mi’kmaq history and heritage. Perhaps more than anything, he was a storyteller, always sharing his knowledge with the next generation.
There is no doubt that Sark’s passing is a tremendous loss for the Island’s heritage community as a whole, and for the Epekwitk’s Mi’kmaq community in particular.
All this is why John Joe Sark is not only receiving a Heritage Recognition Award for his final book. In recognition for his lifelong contribution to preserving and sharing the heritage, culture and history of the Epekwitnewaq Mi’kmaq and, more broadly, of Epekwitk, the Foundation is honoured to name John Joe Sark as the recipient of this year’s Award of Honour.