Volunteers are lifeblood of culture and heritage sector

June 3, 2023

For many cultural and heritage organizations in Inverness County, the winter season is a time to take stock, in between the rush that tourism brings.

It’s a time when the sector can get together and discuss perspectives for the future. A well-attended conference recently organized by the Municipality’s Tourism and Culture department and hosted by the Gaelic College’s Beinn Mhàbu campus did just that.

Over a full day of discussions, movers and shakers representing the county’s many museums, arts venues and community hubs focused on opportunities for the sector to grow and better serve our local communities. A central theme to emerge was the importance of nurturing strong ties with residents. While culture and heritage organizations rare certainly a pull factor for tourism, they are perhaps first and foremost a celebration of our heritage and identity, both by and for local people.

The newly appointed Director at the Conseil des Arts de Chéticamp, Elyse Delaney, is living proof of the life-changing impact that cultural organizations have on the communities they serve.

“The Conseil des Arts gave me so many opportunities as a young musician growing up here,” she says. “Being in a position to offer today’s young artists the support that I had, that’s what enticed me to move back from Halifax to take up this post.”

Local people being deeply involved in the county’s vibrant heritage and culture sector, especially through volunteering, is a big part of keeping the richness of cultural identities alive.

Terry Gillis, right, with her husband Craig, took part in the conference Heritage and Culture: a Path Forward, organized by the Municipality on December 2, 2022.

“Knowing where we come from, and keeping that relevance, it lets us feel proud of who we are and where we are headed,” Delaney notes.

In Whycocomagh, it’s the Waterfront Centre that’s been an invaluable hub for community activities for over a decade. Terry Gillis is among those that have led the initiative, but she’s clear that its success is thanks to so many volunteers’ dedication. “Ownership” is a word that’s never far from Terry’s lips when she talks about all the different ways people get involved to help out.

“It’s really by the community, for the community,” she explains, “with all sorts of people pitching in and there’s space for everyone who’d like to get involved.”

With big name events like Celtic Colours concerts, people do come from far and wide. But it’s the year-round range of regular programming from dances and Thursday evening jam sessions to yoga, pickleball, indoor curling and more, that mean that the local community in Whycocomagh is so well-served.

“It’s essential in rural areas like ours, where people can be isolated,” Gillis adds. “We’re making sure there’s somewhere welcoming where everyone can come to socialize.”

One regular volunteer is Michelle MacLean, a recent graduate of St. F.X. University.

“When I helped coordinate the Whycocomagh Summer Festival, that experience planted a seed in me,” MacLean says. “I wanted to step up and bring our generation together, to inspire others who also see the potential in our community.”

“There’s so much dedication that goes into organizing opportunities to socialize, and that’s been even more important over the last few years. Being a volunteer lets me be a part of that. I love the fact that I’m helping bring community members together and creating and strengthening relationships in the process.”

So, what’s next for these stalwarts of the community? On top of the cultural programming at the Conseil des Arts, Delaney is looking forward to a major upgrade to the facilities. A building extension is planned this year, with reception and banquet rooms, as well as office and meeting spaces available to rent by the day – a valuable resource to boost the diversifying local economy. Stay up to date at: conseildesartsdecheticamp.ca

As for the Waterfront Centre, the community can look forward to upgrades both inside and out. True to the Centre’s tagline – Where people and nature connect – the new features will include an outdoor performance space with the stunning backdrop of Whycocomagh’s water and hills. There’s even talk of a new library branch being hosted here.

The rich cultural life in Inverness County shows there’s room for all sorts of skills, including what younger people and newcomers can bring to the table. If you’ve got an idea for an activity, and a will to put in some energy to make it happen, find out about your local community groups. There’ll be a supportive group of people and maybe resources like space or publicity tools to help you!