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“We’re Rebuilding a Nation”

By: | October 5, 2011

Island’s First Nations movement strengthens with establishment of populated but landless Mi’kmaq band.

Photo by Justin Brake.

After decades of negotiations between the island’s First Nation leaders and the federal and provincial governments, more than 20,000 of Newfoundland’s Mi’kmaq population have been recognized as status Indians by the Government of Canada.

On Sept. 26 the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) and Canada’s Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development announced the establishment of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band.

The decades long struggle, initiated by a small group of Mi’kmaq visionaries in the late 1960s, abated in 2007 when the federal government and FNI negotiated an agreement-in-principle to form the landless band.

The agreement was ratified by both parties in 2008 and the enrollment process began, with a Nov. 30, 2009 deadline for eligible applicants to be ‘first founding members’ and join the band immediately upon its establishment. What happened next, however, surprised everyone.

 Nobody expected such a large explosion of people coming forward and wanting to become part of the band. —Brendan Sheppard

An independent review of the island’s Mi’kmaq population had concluded that the independent enrollment committee, chaired by former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Tom Rideout, could expect in the range of 11,000 applications.

But when more than 26,000 applications flooded enrollment process offices in Central Newfoundland and on the West Coast, it became clear the island’s aboriginal presence is far greater than previously thought. To date, and with more than a year remaining for Mi’kmaq to apply as founding members of the Qalipu band, about 29,000 applications have been submitted.

“Nobody expected such a large explosion of people coming forward and wanting to become part of the band,” says former FNI President Brendan Sheppard, who now acts as interim Qalipu Chief. “We hadn’t known anything about those people for the 35-plus years that the organization had been established.”

The overwhelming response generated a backlog in application processing and, to the confusion of many, the Nov. 2009 deadline widely understood to be an application deadline for ‘first founding member’ standing in the band was in fact a processing deadline. By Dec. 1, only 11,000 applications had been processed and, according to the terms of the agreement, the remaining 15,000 applicants would have to wait up to three years to join the band.

Court Case: Politics Vs. Principle

The FNI’s decision to move forward with the band’s establishment without the remaining members was met with some resistance in the Mi’kmaq community, the most adamant opposition coming from an elder, former Flat Bay Indian Band Chief Calvin White.

“Unfortunately when you create divides, which is what was happening with the registration process…not only in communities but in families where somebody’s eligible and somebody’s got to wait, that’s not goodwill,” says White. “What happens is you develop politics that divide instead of showing concern and commitment and responsibility.”

White, one of the visionaries who initiated the island’s aboriginal movement four decades ago, says personal appeals to the FNI and the federal ministry to consider delaying the formation of the band were met with silence.

On Feb. 1, 2010 he filed a motion in federal court to seek an injunction against the formation of the Qalipu band until all pending membership applications received by the initial deadline had been reviewed. Earlier that day Canadian Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Chuck Strahl had issued a press release announcing an ‘accelerated process’ would be implemented to “ensure that eligible members of the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland become members of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band as quickly as possible.”

 I didn’t have a snowball in hell to win a legal argument but I certainly had the opportunity to stall the process and educate enough people out there. —Calvin White

The announcement affirmed the Qalipu membership list would be updated every four months after the band’s creation so eligible members with processed applications could join sooner. It also stated the inaugural election date could be extended by up to six months and that there would be no delay in the band’s formation.

“I didn’t see anything that committed it other than a press release, and a press release to me doesn’t mean very much, especially when it’s coming from politicians,” says White. “We see press releases every day and there are things that are so strategically written and put out there that a lot of times all it is is smoke and mirrors. So I wasn’t satisfied at all with that decision…there was absolutely no confirmation that this would take place.”

Until White filed the motion the Qalipu band’s anticipated establishment date was early-to-mid 2010, pending a rubber stamp from Cabinet. Even with the accelerated process in place, had the band been formed at that time it is likely a significant number of eligible members who filed their applications by Nov. 30, 2009 would have been excluded from the inaugural election process, an outcome that conflicts with the valued and widely practiced Mi’kmaq principle of equality.

“I told many people right from the beginning that I didn’t have a snowball in hell to win a legal argument but I certainly had the opportunity to stall the process and educate enough people out there, to ensure that a true democracy was being initiated in the beginning, not the hypocrisy that was being (put) in place,” says White.

Sheppard, on behalf of the FNI, countered with allegations that White unnecessarily prevented eligible members with processed applications from accessing benefits and programs for more than a year. He also points out the accelerated process would have ensured all eligible members who submitted applications would join the band soon thereafter.

“We would have had the band formed before the closing of the House (of Commons) last year without any doubt in my mind had that motion not come into effect,” says Sheppard. “Therefore there was a lot of people really denied access to benefits and services that could have benefitted them greatly as a result.”

 Therefore there was a lot of people really denied access to benefits and services that could have benefitted them greatly as a result. —Brendan Sheppard

White maintains he was merely embodying the values and ethics of his people by taking a principled stand.

“I may have lost a legal argument but I certainly won a moral argument when it comes to due diligence for aboriginal people in this province,” he says. “The moral justice is the real justice for aboriginal people, which is that the people who were being left out are now part of that process.

“I share the vision that when you take responsibility for providing leadership you do it on behalf of all the people, not just some of the people. And that’s where I was coming from.”

The delay ended on June 14, 2011 when Federal Court of Canada Justice Elizabeth Heneghan ruled against White’s motion. By the end of July, according to Rideout, the enrollment committee had completed processing all applications received by Nov. 30, 2009.

“They have been cleared up and we’re working into December of 2009 last time I checked,” he says.

Combined, the cleared backlog and delayed formation of the band have resulted in a significant turn of events for the thousands at risk of exclusion from the band’s early formative period, who will now receive their Indian status and join the band four months after its establishment.

The agreement now states that the interim board of the Qalipu band (comprised of the nine former FNI band chiefs as councillors and Sheppard as interim Chief) must call the election within six months of the band’s formation and hold it within 18 months.

“(The election) will go possibly close enough to the end of the 18 months to make sure that the programs are operating in good fiscal restraints and the appropriate policies and accountability procedures operating, as we (did) on a smaller scale with the (FNI),” says Sheppard.

The Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band leadership will include councillors from each of the nine districts, Vice Chiefs for Western and Central Newfoundland and a Grand Chief.

A History of Oppression and Silence

Since arriving on Taqamkuk, or “Land Across the Water” (Newfoundland), most likely from Unama’kik, or “Land of Fog” (Cape Breton), in the early 1600s at the latest, most generations of Mi’kmaq have inhabited the island in an environment of oppression, discrimination and stigmatization.

Their nomadic means to acquiring and storing food—hunting, fishing and foraging while transitioning between seasonal settlements—were disrupted by the expropriation of land, out of which grew a struggle to survive the way they always have. An increasing number of Mi’kmaq on the island had no choice but to begin selling their labour for money to buy the necessities they once acquired freely themselves.

By many accounts, including those of present day Miawpukek First Nation (Conne River) Chief Mi’sel Joe, Mi’kmaq were prohibited from speaking their own language, children were forced into residential schools and the embracement of Christianity was expected of them. In a nutshell, the Mi’kmaq were stripped of a way of life they had developed over a significant period of time and forced into the much harsher social, political and economic world of the island’s new colonizers.

Adrian Tanner, a retired professor of anthropology at Memorial University who has worked with the Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland for much of his career, says Mi’kmaq were presumed to be on the verge of full integration into society when Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949.

 He cheated them so that they were never recognized at the time of Confederation, and it’s been an uphill battle ever since to get that recognition. —Adrian Tanner

“Joey Smallwood told the federal government they had all disappeared or had intermarried and that there were none,” he says. “Any small amount of research that he would have done would show that there were clearly existing bands at that time, of clearly identifiable Mi’kmaq. Whether through ignorance or actual lying, he cheated them so that they were never recognized at the time of Confederation, and it’s been an uphill battle ever since to get that recognition.”

Though the Mi’kmaq continued practicing what customs and traditions they could, the silence generated from their oppression endured until the late 1960s, when a shift in aboriginal consciousness began to grow across the country.

“A lot of people knew of their Mi’kmaq ancestry, and of course they practice a way of life different than others,” explains Sheppard, “but it was only when students from Conne River and Labrador started to attend university (that) they realized the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) was being formed across the country to represent aboriginal people and off-reserve people. So they formed the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador at the time. The Labrador Innu and Inuit decided that they would move off on their own because they had a better chance of gaining recognition since they used their mother tongue and lived off the land more so than we did here on the island. The (FNI) was born after that, and of course Conne River moved off on their own. But give Conne River their due (because) once they were recognized they passed on the invitation to all other members associated with the FNI at that time, which was around 5,000 or 6,000 people in the nine different bands around the island, to go to Conne River if they so desired to become a part of the process.”

From Silence to Awakening

Today Mi’kmaq communities exist in and around Flat Bay, Corner Brook, Benoit’s Cove, Gander Bay, Glenwood, Port au Port, Grand-Falls Windsor, St. George’s, Stephenville and Conne River. Many people have also relocated to other towns or moved off the island. In total, more than 29,000 applications for band membership have been received and the enrollment process will continue until Nov. 30, 2012, at which time the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band will likely already be the most populated band in Canada.

For the past four years much of the discourse surrounding the band’s formation has centred on entitlement to benefits and programs from the federal government. Most reports from local media also have tended to tell the story with a focus on the financial component of forming a new First Nation band. However, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College anthropology professor Angela Robinson says people in the Mi’kmaq community, with whom she has worked since the mid-90s, are experiencing the phenomenon quite differently.

“They were calling it ‘the awakening’ here (in Corner Brook), awakening to the realization that they were aboriginal people,” she explains. “It was awakening to the fact that they had aboriginal ancestry and the fact that they wanted to, I guess, develop that part of their identity. Some people knew all along that they had aboriginal ancestry because their families spoke about it, but from what I understand the majority of people here didn’t know. So you look at those 21,500 people who just got status — the majority of them had no idea they had aboriginal ancestry.”

But for the thousands of Newfoundlanders who may feel compelled to seek out an understanding of their identity, what lies ahead is likely to be full of hurdles creeping out of the past.

“The whole concept of displacement is very important in terms of identity because families got fractured and dispersed. It was almost like a diaspora as far as I’m concerned. People got flung into different areas in and around the Bay of Islands and wherever, and so where they had concentrated communities at one point in time, and when industry came in and dispersed them—that is an issue of identity because all of a sudden you don’t even know who your relatives are.

 There was very little history, no written history. Even the people themselves were very unaware of who they were, so we were a lost people. —Calvin White

“People got displaced from different areas,” Robinson continues. “Some of the people remained in the areas (and) they knew who they were, but when people got dispersed out they didn’t know, they didn’t have the connection. But when they started finding out that their relatives were being recognized, that they were searching out aboriginal roots, they said all of a sudden, ‘If he or she is, then I am.’ So the dispersal was instrumental in people not knowing. And I think it was instrumental in people not anticipating.”

On the whole, White says he and many in the Mi’kmaq community understand the events that precipitated and will follow from this period of awakening to be of great significance for Mi’kmaq history.

“What we’re doing here is we’re rebuilding a nation,” he says. “We’ve uncovered and discovered something that was on the point of extinction. We’ve had one native tribe in Newfoundland that became extinct, the Beothuks, and the same thing was happening with the Mi’kmaq people. We were on the verge of cultural extinction.

“We were becoming extinct through ignorance. There was very little history, no written history. Even the people themselves were very unaware of who they were, so we were a lost people,” he continues. “And what we started to do in 1969, 1970 is we started to educate ourselves and educate people about who they were, what they belonged to, the values of aboriginal culture, the values of communities working together with one objective in mind: prosperity for our people. And not only prosperity through the ownership of material things, but prosperity that comes from people working together and sharing in responsibility of the upbringing of each other’s children, which is the kind of upbringing that I’m familiar with.”

Mi’kmaq and the Media

Among the tasks that lay ahead for Newfoundland Mi’kmaq are the reclaiming of cultural values, customs, principles, language, and the undertaking to gain respect as a distinct group, part of which will undoubtedly entail knowledge of their history and the debunking of myths, such as one once taught in high school history classes across Newfoundland — that the Mi’kmaq came to the island to assist in the slaughter of the Beothuk. The Indy’s “Traditional Voice” columnist John Nick Jeddore, a Memorial University student from Miawpukek, addressed other common misperceptions of Mi’kmaq people and history in his informative piece “There were no Indians here…”.

Another significant factor in the island’s Mi’kmaq revival will undoubtedly be the degree of responsibility with which journalists choose to practice. Most media outlets on the island have focused on the programs and services that will be available to band members, indeed an important topic. But against the backdrop of the “rebirth of a Nation,” are programs and services really a legitimate focal point?

About 20,000 Newfoundlanders recently uncovered parts of their families’ pasts that they had no idea about, an event that will unquestionably inspire many to reflect on their own identity, a thing which always evolves when new knowledge is acquired and, as a result, a thing which will change for upward of 30,000 islanders. Programs and services should not dominate public discourse around an event of this magnitude, nor should they be ignored. For a taste of more in-depth early coverage of the Qalipu band, read Kathryn Blaze Carlson’s relatively inquisitive article “How the O’Learys and 20,000 other Newfoundlanders were declared Mi’kmaq”, published in the National Post last weekend.

Sheppard says the Qalipu band will look to its “Mi’kmaq brothers and sisters” in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, “and we’ll get as much from them as we possibly need along with their guidance and training for our people,” he says. “Then we can set out and teach others within the local communities and get as many people who are interested in culture and language as possible, and traditional ways of life.”

The Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band recently launched the www.qalipu.ca web site, which includes information on the band, its interim Chief and council, departments and the programs and services available to band members.

Justin Brake is a St. John’s-based independent journalist. He was born in Gander, grew up on the mainland, and learned of his Mi’kmaq ancestry after returning to the island in 2007. He is a founding member of the Qalipu band.

Correction: The article has been modified to reflect the proper Mi’kmaq name for Newfoundland, ‘Taqamkuk’.

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