The story of a community’s struggle for recognition…
My father created the sign in the accompanying photo as a welcome for those who visited our reserve. It once read “Nike’ piskwa’n pask pkesikn l’nu’-maqmikew tel-nenasik awsami-apje’jik Miawpukek” which roughly meant that you were entering only a small part of Mi’kmaw land known to us as Miawpukek. As you can see, the sign is a bit old and has since been taken down, hopefully to be replaced by a sign much like this one. I am using this photo because as some of you may not know, at one time this land was not recognized as a reserve by the government, nor were we even recognized as ‘Indians’, either! This seems hard to believe because we’ve established ourselves as Mi’kmaq people on this land and celebrate that identity each and every day.
However, that was not always so. Up until the early 1980’s, from the viewpoint of the government, there were no Indians inhabiting the island portion of this province. I didn’t believe it when I was first told; luckily I was raised during the time of cultural revitalization, where you could be proud to be Mi’kmaq. However my father, and his father were not so lucky. People from other communities didn’t always want to associate with our people and when you left the community, some would advise you not to speak of where you came from. Not only was there a stigma attached to being aboriginal, the government wouldn’t even recognize you as one, anyway!
There’s a lot of history behind our road to being recognized, including members leaving the community, occupying government offices, barricading roads, holding hunger strikes and so much more. There’s far too much to get into in one column, but I will outline the best I can our fight to be recognized.
I can’t write about recognition without mentioning the Mi’kmaq on this island who are not from Samiajij Miawpukek First Nations (Conne River). About a month ago, the federal government finally decided to recognize the remaining Mi’kmaq of Taqamkuk as Status Indians under the Indian act as the Qalipu First Nation. This group will be a landless band unlike my reserve, but the members will be entitled to all the rights outlined in the Indian act. We here on Miawpukek were once members of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians with the members of Qalipu, but decided to separate and fight for recognition and reserve lands around 1977. This recent recognition of the QFN has been a long time coming but thankfully it has finally arrived.
Mi’kmaq people have irrefutably occupied this land for hundreds of years, and arguably before European contact via birchbark canoes over the Cabot Strait (as I’ve discussed before). When asked, we say that we were always here, from the beginning. Despite what many choose to believe, we were not ‘brought’ here to do someone else’s dirty work (I hate to even touch on that idea) but instead knew this land was a great area for hunting and gathering.
We established semi-permanent settlements around Nujioqoni’k (Bay St. George), Wapeskue’katik (White Bear Bay), Miawpukek (Conne River) and other, mainly coastal, areas. These areas were settled usually in the summer, but were left during the winter for hunting and trapping grounds further inland. Of these areas, Conne River remained inherently Mi’kmaq. The other communities also had and continue to have a very strong presence, but to this day the population of our community self identifies as Mi’kmaq, as it always has.
Despite what many choose to believe, we were not ‘brought’ here to do someone else’s dirty work…
This was so evident that in 1869, Alexander Murray set aside a strip of land in Conne River as a reserve for the Mi’kmaq. No one in the community really knew what that meant at the time, due to such isolation, but they realized it set them apart. At that time, and to this day, we had our own governance: community chiefs, district chiefs, grand chiefs, and a system that worked together extremely well for centuries and will continue to do so for centuries to come. This system of governance exists today under the Sante Mawio’mi, or grand council.
In my grandfather’s time, school was never a priority. You would either go until you were old enough to head to the country or you wouldn’t attend at all. Mi’kmaq people were hunters and gatherers since the beginning of time; that’s what we knew best. So that’s what most of the people from our community would do when they turned 10 or 11: they’d begin to learn the ways of the animals so they too could provide for their family. This went on for some time, but then something happened. Animal numbers began to dwindle, regulations were put on hunting, people our elders never saw before started hunting on ntuylwo’mi (traditional trapping grounds) forcing them to go further inland to hunt. These regulations were a foreign ideology to our people. An elder once told me, “There was never a decline in animal numbers when my grandfather hunted, only until new people came around did they begin dying off, then they put regulations on our hunt so we could no longer feed our families like we once did”. There are many horror stories about Mounties coming into our community and confiscating animals that were ‘illegally’ hunted. One such story involved an officer taking the liver right from the frying pan during Easter dinner. Our community experienced a lot of problems at that time, and employment declined to nearly zero percent. We never went to school because our traditional way of life didn’t require it, but now that our lifestyle was taken away, we had nowhere to turn.
When Newfoundland signed onto confederation, we were then considered Canadian citizens. We abided by the laws and the ideals associated with being ‘Canadian’. But there was one small problem: there was no mention whatsoever of the aboriginal inhabitants of the island. During Confederation, we were ‘penciled out’. Premier Joey Smallwood said there were no Indians in Newfoundland; we are all Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians).
Really? But what about us?
When someone asks my nationality, I reply ‘First Nations’. This is our home, and has been for hundreds of years, yet we gained no recognition when this land was signed over to Canada. Again, we didn’t really take note of that because we were isolated in our own community trying to maintain the traditional way of life. But as things got worse, we looked for help. Our only way of life was now impossible and we did not know what to do.
So a movement started in the 1960’s, to try and figure out what other aboriginal communities were doing. We here in Conne River maintained contact with Mi’kmaq communities on the mainland, so in 1972, So’sep and Martin Jeddore went to the Assembly of Nova Scotia Indians to see if we were entitled to anything under the ruling order of Canada. Well it turned out that Indians in Canada were entitled to certain rights outlined in the Indian Act and Treaties signed between our people and the colonialists at the time. Well, what do you know! This information would have been nice to have years earlier, but Joey forgot about us all when he signed the island over.
In 1973, the first native council was formed in Conne River. It was a more formal effort to have our voices heard on a governmental level. In the mid 70’s an agreement was made between the provincial government and Conne River declaring it a native community. However this posed problems from the start, and they only got worse. Over the following years, land claims were made by our people and were denied due to ‘lack of history’, which is very upsetting since over 100 years prior to this, Conne River had already been set aside as “Indian land”.
Then in 1983, things really took a turn. The provincial government sent cheques to our community with many conditions attached. Our Saqamaw, Mi’sel Joe refused to accept these conditions and a stop order was placed on them. One month later, 100 members of our community went to St. John’s to support Saqamaw in our fight for equality with all first nations. We couldn’t understand why we were having so much difficulty, compared to our relatives on the mainland on their reserves. Well, during that time, Joe Goudie (Minister of Rural, Agriculture and Northern Development) slammed the Miawpukek Indian Band. So, the following day 31 members of our community occupied his office and locked themselves inside.
Things were starting to get serious.
Police eventually broke in and many of our people faced charges. There were supporters waiting outside the office who actually snuck some of the members away without getting arrested. Hope of our being recognized as equals seemed to dwindle. But in one last effort, Saqamaw Mi’sel Joe decided he’d hold a hunger strike. He, along with 8 others (Sulia’n Joe, Salusal Drew, Chesley Joe, Antle Joe, Aubrey Joe, Michael Benoit, Wilfred Drew and Ricky Jeddore) put their lives on the line so their children and our people as a whole could have a better life than they faced at the time.
It was a success!
The government agreed to sit down and talk with our leaders. Finally in December of 1985, after years of fighting, the Federal Government recognized Conne River as a Reserve. Then in 1987, two years before I was born, our community was officially recognized as an Indian reserve under the Indian act and those living on the land with Mi’kmaq ancestry were recognized as status Indians.
Since then, employment has gone up to nearly 100%, our school is operated privately by our own nation and teaches our language and history, and we’ve kept the chieftain system we had used for hundreds of years. When you enter the reserve we can ‘legally’ now say, “p’jilasi siknue’kati!” and once again, our people are proud to be Mi’kmaq.