A drum beat softly and steadily as sacred smoke drifted around the brilliant fall trees surrounding Portapique's new playground, offering protection and a new beginning.
The rural Nova Scotia community officially opened a new playground on Sunday, roughly a year and a half after a gunman began a deadly shooting in the area that would cross the province and claim 22 lives.
"The project has been ... a forum for people to give, where people didn't know how to help after the tragedy," said Portapique resident Andrew MacDonald after the park's ribbon cutting.
"We wanted it to be a place where people can focus their energies without feeling helpless."
The playground of grey wooden beams, green slides and a log swing is the first phase of a community building project.
The second phase will see the adjacent historic Portapique Community Hall, built in the 1830s, lifted up and redesigned into a new, larger building where dances, weddings and community events can take place.
MacDonald, president of the hall's board of trustees, said Sunday was a proud day for so many people in the community who spent hours each week planning, clearing the land or watering the new grass. A local business, Cobequid Consulting, designed and built the new playground.
Mi'kmaw elders held a smudging ceremony and chant before the official opening, and Elder Joe Michael gave the space a Mi'kmaw name: mikjikj, meaning turtle.
"The idea is that the kids can be safe in this space because turtles bring the homes on their backs, and they are safe wherever they go," MacDonald said. "It's a great name."
After the shooting, MacDonald said the locals were worried stigma would remain attached to Portapique's name, and wanted to build something new and positive for the area where families could come together.
Even though he'd lived in the area for about 10 years, MacDonald said he didn't know his neighbours until this project. Now, he knows where to stop in for a cup of sugar, or whose kids are running behind him through the leaves.
"Even if this is all we do, if we never build the rest of the hall, we certainly accomplished our goal and we'll just continue to grow those relationships," he said, looking around at the gathered crowd.
"It's been a really special, special project."
The playground was created by locals working alongside the Rotary Club of Truro, supported by donations that poured in after the tragedy and handled by the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia.
Alana Hirtle of the Truro club's Rotary cares committee said Sunday that the total project price tag is about $822,000.
Now that the playground is complete, Hirtle said they still need to raise $300,000 — about $175,000 in cash and the rest as in-kind donations of cement, windows or other materials to be used in the new hall.
Not only does the project lift people's spirits, but Hirtle said it fills a logistical need. Since Portapique is situated in the centre of the Bay of Fundy shoreline, people usually have to drive to nearby communities to use their playgrounds or large event spaces.
Once the new hall is also in place, Hirtle said she hopes the building becomes a place to simply be together.
"This really is a story of hope and resilience and the community coming together to rebuild themselves after the tragedy," Hirtle said.
"My hope is that we're giving them a location where they can come and be and be safe and start to find that community again."
Sloane Turner MacLean, 13, said having the new playground means a lot.
"It's been nice to see the community come together and build it, and see all the kids coming here, having fun," she said, surrounded by friends.
Hirtle said they hope to lay the hall's new foundations before winter, and move the historic building away from the playground a few dozen metres to make room for the new addition.
On April 18-19, 2020, a gunman disguised as a Mountie set fire to Portapique homes and killed neighbours, acquaintances and strangers in what would become one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history.
The shooter was eventually killed by police at a gas station in Enfield, south of Portapique and about 32 kilometres north of Halifax.
Many questions remain about what unfolded over those two days. The commission of inquiry investigating the mass killing recently delayed the first set of hearings, scheduled for this month, until late January.
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