Released in 1969, “The Onion Song” never achieved the popularity of other Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell duets. But I’ve always loved the message in the lyrics: “The world is just a great big onion. Pain and fear are the spices that make you cry. And the only way to get rid of this great big onion is to plant love seeds.”
The tune has taken on added meaning as I reflect, during Mi’kmaw History Month, on my first camping adventure at Kejimkujik National Park. Reportedly derived from the Mi’kmaw word for “little fairies,” Kejimkujik was established as a national park in 1969 and, in 1995, declared a national historic site because of its cultural significance for the Mi’kmaq.
Moreover, the park’s low levels of light pollution — a feature that facilitates the natural viewing of planets and stars — prompted the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), in 2010, to designate Keji a Dark-Sky Preserve. It’s the only such site in the province.
As for the fairies, Rebecca Thomas, a local Mi’kmaw author/activist explained: “I know [them] as harmless spirits that play tricks on humans. If you’re particularly mean, they might play bigger tricks on you. However, it’s mostly knocking over things, making you lose your keys, etc.”
My (trickery-free) excursion to Keji was the latest trip I’ve taken to research the lack of racial diversity in wilderness areas throughout Turtle Island. African-Canadian scholar Jacqueline Scott explores the topic with PaRx, a British Columbia-based health care initiative that connects people with the outdoors.
She notes: “Nature is marketed as free for everybody, and good for everybody. But if you’re Black, those things don’t work out necessarily in the same way at all. … I had a look at a recent Parks Canada guide to the National Parks of Canada, and could not find a single Black person in the 400 photographs. … And it continues that tradition of erasing Black history as foundational to Canada as a country.”
Keji holds national Rainbow Registered accreditation as a 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusive space and welcomed about 75,000 visitors in the fiscal year 2022-2023, according to Statista, a global data collection group. Yet despite its acclaim as a “keeper of memories” (such as sacred petroglyphs) for the Mi’kmaq, Keji struggles to attract non-white visitors.
Indeed, the guide for my two-hour canoe trip along the shores of the Mersey River confided that few people of colour book the excursion that honours the traditional hunting, harvesting, and fishing routes that the Mi’kmaq travelled for millennia.
“Nearly everyone is white, like me,” she said, as we paddled past eastern painted turtles sunning on nearby logs. “We definitely want Keji to be more diverse.”
Born elsewhere, the guide knew little about the pained history of Blacks in Nova Scotia. Wide-eyed, she listened intently as I shared info about the demolition of Africville. Ditto for my musings on Halifax merchant Malachy Salter (the namesake for Salter Street) who, in a 1759 letter to his wife, beseeched her to buy a slave when she was visiting Boston.
Then, in a reprise of conversations I’ve had with whites in locales such as the Florida Everglades and Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, I cited some of the reasons that Black folk don’t naturally “cotton to” the outdoors.
“We were forced to work on plantations, hunted in swamps, and lynched in the back woods,” I explained.
I also shared with her an exchange I had with a hiker in the Grand Canyon. He was the only Black person I met during a lengthy stay in the iconic park that boasts five million visitors per year. Like me, the brother was determined to improve his relationship with nature.
“All of the messages we receive from our families and community are about moving forward and getting ahead,” he said. “To come to the wilderness is to return to the primitive. Blacks don’t see anything ‘advanced’ about building camp fires, sleeping in tents or relieving ourselves in a forest.”
The guide’s response? “This is important to know.”
Sadly, I was compelled to repeat the “tutorial” when a RASC official at a Dark-Sky event started bemoaning his failure to boost minority visits to Keji. “It’s really frustrating,” he said.
So here’s a suggestion for RASC honchos: Hire Professor Louise Olivia Violet Edwards to lead a future Dark-Sky gathering. An African-Canadian astrophysicist, Edwards holds degrees from the University of Victoria, Saint Mary’s University (SMU), and the Université of Laval.
Indeed, as a master’s student at SMU, Edwards’ image was depicted — peering through a telescope — on a 2002 Canada Post stamp. An expert in galaxy formation, she now teaches at California Polytechnic State University.
“I’d be willing to come to Keji, if invited,” she told me. “All my work is on the astronomy/astrophysics side.”
Self notwithstanding, I didn’t see another identifiably Black person during my trip to Keji — an adventure that, admittedly, was cut short by torrential rains. Still, I had a grand time canoeing, hiking, visiting the petroglyphs with Mi’kmaw guide Jonathan Oickle, and relishing a lobster roll at the park’s Lakeview Canteen. As Oickle told it, the Mi’kmaq first introduced settlers to lobster.
To be sure, I’m thankful for my encounter with a woman, resplendent in hijab, whose eyes lit up when we crossed paths. “I love your hoodie,” she said. Startled by her remark, I’d begun to “survey” my attire when she continued: “I’m African, from Libya.”
With that, I remembered that my red hoodie was adorned with a map of Africa and bore the text: “One Love.”
Back home, while dicing onions and reflecting on the violence in the Middle East, I learned (by way of a recipe) that Libya has one of the highest allium cepa consumption rates in the world. I heard the soothing, ancestral voices of Marvin and Tammi as tears fell on my cutting board.