Opera star Measha Brueggergosman speaks of being Black on the East Coast

Measha Brueggergosman

When opera singer Measha Brueggergosman was given the opportunity to curate an episode of UNDISRUPTED, she had a very clear idea of the story she wanted to tell: the struggles faced by people in the Maritime provinces, and how they can join together to overcome them.

UNDISRUPTED is a four-part series on CBC Gem that took four musicians/composers — Bruggergosman, Shawnee Kish, Nicole Lizée and Ana Sokolovic — and gave them a film budget, use of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and virtually unlimited creative control to create a half-hour program about something that matters to them.

Brueggergosman, who grew up in New Brunswick and now lives in Nova Scotia, says she wanted to “tell the story of what it means to grow up with […] very few prospects for the future but shipping yourself to a whole other part of the country, because your [province] doesn’t offer you enough work to sustain your life or your family’s life, right? That’s the Maritime migration to the oil sands. That’s not how your country is supposed to go. You’re supposed to be able to raise your family where they were born.”

She made her episode, entitled “Forgotten Coast,” alongside Nova Scotian rapper Jay Vernon. She says that some of the ideas and bars Vernon brought to the episode were things he’d been working on for years, or even decades.

“It’s a thing for him to wrap his mind around … hearing tonalities and structures that are born of the things that he wrote in his basement when he was like 16,” she says. “And now fast-forward close to 20 years, and they’re being actualized by not just any orchestra, but the National Arts Centre Orchestra.”

Measha Brueggergosman

Brueggergosman uses “Forgotten Coast” as a platform to shed light on some of the less talked about aspects of Maritime history, including the the destruction of Halifax’s Africville community and the ongoing exploitation of the land by companies that take natural resources from the Maritimes for the profit of those living elsewhere.

“It is an absolute result of this systemic depravity that seven of the 10 most impoverished communities [in Canada] are in New Brunswick, and they’re all Indigenous,” she says. “You can’t tell me that there’s no proof that this part of the country has more disparity in terms of what we’ve been given access to, in terms of what companies have been able to get away with, in terms of the gutting of our populace for the affluence of places and experiences we’ll never experience.”

That said, she adds that the purpose of talking about these things isn’t to assign blame, but instead to start operating from a place of openness that will, hopefully, allow communities to heal.

“Raising the awareness of that unfortunate truth is not a finger-pointing exercise,” she says. “It’s simply a truth that will ultimately set us free, because we’ll be able to work from a greater foundation, a more established place, an actual truthful identity. Yes, they bulldozed the church — the heartbeat of Africville — in the night … and we’re talking in the ’60s, we’re not talking ancient Canadian history. Talk about that.”

Brueggergosman says that one of the things she wants to convey to her fellow Maritimers is that they need to both be “demanding a new day” and leaning on one another to make it happen.

“At one point in the film, I say quite clearly that we need to use what we have because more is not coming,” she says. “And that’s good news, because when we get it, we’ll know that’s from God, which is my faith, but also that we used each other to bolster each other, because we are here as our greatest resource.”