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Elder, former Mi’kmaq chief says Qalipu “crisis” must be “stopped”

By: | June 30, 2017

“We’re running away from the people that we’re supposed to be representing,” says Calvin White.

Flat Bay Elder Calvin White answered questions at the 3rd Annual Liminus interdisciplinary conference in Woody Point on June 19, 2017. Photo by Justin Brake.

An elder and former Mi’kmaq leader says the Qalipu enrolment controversy must be dealt with before irreversible damage is done to the Mi’kmaq community in Newfoundland and a dangerous precedent is set for First Nations people across Canada.

During a question and answer forum at St. Patrick’s Church in Woody Point on June 19 Calvin White told a group of about 20 people gathered for an interdisciplinary conference that the formation of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band, the criteria devised to determine band membership, and a subsequent agreement between Canada and Qalipu that has resulted in the denial of Indian Status to thousands of Mi’kmaq people have all culminated in a “crisis” he says needs urgent and immediate action.

Answering questions from Kelly Anne Butler, vice-chair of the Bay St. George Mi’kmaw Cultural Revival Committee and an Aboriginal Resources Officer at Grenfell Campus, the former Flat Bay chief told those gathered for the third annual Liminus conference that once the Qalipu founding members list is finalized—anticipated to happen by March 2018—“the damage that is happening right now will be cemented, and there’s going to be no opportunity for change.”

Following the enrolment committee’s receipt of more than 100,000 applications for band membership, former Qalipu Chief and Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) President Brendan Sheppard renegotiated an agreement with Canada that saw the application review process restarted under a point system, where applicants required a minimum of 13 points—awarded based on self-identification, place of residence, proof of regular communication with, or travel to, a Mi’kmaq community, and previous membership in the FNI—to be granted Indian status by Canada and membership in Qalipu.

On Feb. 7 Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada announced the band’s founding members’ list will consist of 18,044 people, while more than 10,000 existing members are slated to have their Indian status revoked in an unprecedented move by Canada in 2018.

Around 86,000 self-identified Mi’kmaq will not be recognized as Indigenous, an outcome White and others have said has left families and communities divided.

In his own family, three of White’s children were accepted into the band, while the other three were rejected, he said.

White, a co-founder of the Aboriginal movement in Newfoundland and Labrador, cited other examples of longtime members of the Mi’kmaq community who were denied status, including John Oliver, the first president of the FNI, which was established almost a half century ago to fight for the recognition and rights of Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland.

He said if the Qalipu enrolment process is left to conclude under the current membership criteria regime, and if thousands lose their Indian status and membership in Qalipu First Nation, the result will be “precedent-setting” and “could erode the identity of Aboriginal people” throughout Canada.

“We got lost because people lost sight of the objective,” he said, explaining Mi’kmaq leaders within the FNI negotiated a treaty with Canada that is “leaving behind” many of the people the movement and the FNI were founded in order to help.

Through his responses to questions from Butler and audiences members, the elder offered a brief history of the movement for Mi’kmaq recognition and rights in Newfoundland and an account of how that movement’s objectives, he said, have been compromised.

On the verge of cultural extinction

“There was an uprising across the country,” White recounted, describing the political climate in Indian country in the wake of the 1969 White Paper, a proposal spearheaded by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chretien to abolish the Indian Act.

“It would have eroded Aboriginal identity and existence in this country,” he said.

“People everywhere realized that being silent was detrimental to our identity, and that we were going to become extinct — maybe not in the minds of our families and people, but definitely in Canadian society. So there was a need to stand up, there was a need to do something.”

At the time Indigenous communities and nations across Canada were organizing into provincial alliances to develop a stronger voice in fighting for land title, treaty rights and self-determination.

In 1973 the Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit in this province united to form the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Within a few years the Innu and Inuit branched off to form their own organizations, and the Mi’kmaq continued fighting for their rights under the reformed FNI.

Though there were self-identified Mi’kmaq and assimilated Mi’kmaq descendants living in communities around the province, White explained, Conne River and Flat Bay “were the two surviving communities” that maintained a traditional way of life.

“We had no need to integrate or to assimilate.”

White said that while some members of the two communities left and integrated into Canadian society, as external political and economic forces continued to encroach on their way of life elders and other community leaders felt a growing urgency to resist and maintain the Mi’kmaq culture and identity that defined their communities.

He recalled a meeting in Flat Bay, when organizers from Conne River and other communities had travelled to Bay St. George to discuss how the communities could unite to resist further colonization and assimilation.

Pull Quote Calvin White“We had about a five hour discussion with 19 people in the home of an elderly lady in our community, and we talked about what needed to be done, and were we going to do anything about it, or were we going to allow ourselves to be swept under the carpet and become, not even a part of history — we weren’t going to be recognized in the history books as our sisters and brothers of the other nation, the Beothuk, were… because in our particular case there were no Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland.”

White recounted the famous omission of Indigenous people from Newfoundland’s confederation with Canada.

“The Government of Canada and the provincial government denied that we existed in 1949,” he said. “Why would anybody include us in the history books if we didn’t exist?

“So the onus was on us as a people to rise up and to start a movement — and we did.”

White said the group recognized their struggle would be an uphill battle.

“What would it take to change the history of Newfoundland?”

Resisting colonialism and assimilation

The objective was to “do something that includes all of the people,” White explained. “Let’s do something that betters the people who are down and out.”

Throughout his responses White referenced a “caring and sharing” way of life practiced by the Mi’kmaq of Flat Bay and Conne River, now known as Miawpukek First Nation.

He recalled waking up some mornings when he was about nine years old to find his father’s sled dogs missing.

“I’d come in and say, dad, our dogs are gone, all three of them. And dad would say, ‘Oh, that’s okay, somebody’s gone in the country for a load of caribou — they’ll bring them back when they come out.’ And a couple days after somebody would arrive with dad’s three dogs and a quarter of caribou meat.

“That was what I grew up in,” he explained. “I didn’t see that in European culture — [that] was about me, me, me, and, the more I get, the more I want.”

White said many in Flat Bay fell into poverty and dependence on government assistance while resisting assimilation, which came in the form of government policies and laws that prevented them from maintaining traditions fundamental to their identity as Aboriginal people.

It was those people who White and others were fighting for in the early ‘70s.

“We looked at doing something that would benefit the people I saw walking on the road, when other people were targeting them as lazy good-for-nothings living off the taxes that they paid [from] the jobs that they were fortunate enough to have.”

Pull Quote Calvin WhiteBut White said there was a realization among the movement’s early leaders as they visited communities to compile lists of Mi’kmaq families that the degree of colonization and assimilation that had taken place in Newfoundland was far greater than they expected.

“I look back on it now and one person asked me one time: ‘If your objective was to work for the less privileged and try to change the status quo of people who were two or three generations depending on welfare, why did you bother with any of the rest of the people who were doing well for themselves and had a good education?’

“I didn’t have to hesitate for the answer,” White recalled. “I really believed that Mi’kmaq people would be interested in caring and sharing, and carrying out the traditions of our way of life and our culture. And I felt it was very important to draw those people into the fold, because those people could become mentors, they could become employers, they could become investors. They could become everything that was needed to build our nation [into] a productive nation that showed concern, care and fought for equality.

“Was I ever wrong. Was I ever wrong.”

White said organizers were “always open and honest with regard to inclusion,” and that they didn’t want to leave anyone out.

“But we underestimated the power of colonialism, and we underestimated how that power engulfed some of our people,” he said.

“What we found is that as we enticed people to become involved…while some of our people could trace their genealogy to an Aboriginal [ancestor], they had no knowledge and no understanding of the culture.

“We saw colonialism as a very selfish culture,” he continued, explaining organizers were aware of people who “do well for themselves, have a lot of money and good jobs, build nice houses,” but looked down on people who openly identified as Aboriginal and had less than them.

“They don’t even want their own people living on [their] street, because it’s going to diminish their wealth or their worth. So if that’s not selfish, what is selfish?

Photo by Justin Brake.

“We underestimated the power of colonialism, and we underestimated how that power engulfed some of our people,” White explained. Photo by Justin Brake.

“Rightfully or wrongfully, we looked at that and said, that’s not what we want. We don’t want that kind of culture. We want one of sharing and caring, the one that I grew up in, and the one that [movement co-founders] Marilyn John and Tony John and John Oliver grew up in, where if there was only one good axe in the community it didn’t only belong to one person — anybody who needed that axe could come and get it.

“When we opened our arms to some of our legitimate people, documentation-wise, we overlooked the assimilation that they had already undergone. They were assimilated, and they saw the Aboriginal movement as an opportunity not to care and share and work on behalf of their people, and to bring their skills, which is what we wanted — they saw it as an opportunity to better themselves.”

White says he sees the same thing happening today with Qalipu, and on a much larger scale.

Asked by an audience member about numbers of legitimate and illegitimate applicants, White said he can’t identify a specific number of people who are more interested in benefits and advancing their own self-interests than contributing to the well-being of Mi’kmaq society in Newfoundland, but that he is aware of some who he says never identified as Mi’kmaq but applied for Indian status in pursuit of health, education and tax benefits.

“If an organization exists in your community for 40 years…but you never ever had any interest—there’s meetings four or five times a year in your community [and] you never show up—but all of a sudden you get taxes off your car if you have this little card in your wallet. Then you start spending four or five thousand dollars in research and start looking for people to sign affidavits so you can get one of them cards,” he said, illustrating his interpretation of what happened for many now claiming Mi’kmaq identity.

“I don’t think you’re Indian, because I don’t think you understand or know what Aboriginal is, what it feels like. So you’re basing it on greed, not on feeling, not on support, not on experiences, and not having walked a mile in a person’s shoes. I don’t think those people have walked too far in anyone’s shoes other than their own,” White continued.

“So that, to me, suggests that the number is a lot less than 100,000. Because where were those people until the day they realized, hey, this is a gravy train for me?”

White said he travelled across Canada in the 1980s as a member of the National Indian Brotherhood (which eventually became the Assembly of First Nations), and that he noticed what was happening in Newfoundland at the time was “no different from [what was] happening across this country.

Pull Quote Calvin White“We have too many supposed leaders who are taking advantage of our vulnerable people and have adopted colonial-style government and [were] trying to apply it to the reserve — ‘I’ll look out to myself and my own, and to hell with everybody else,’” he said. “That happened here in our organization and unfortunately it’s still happening.”

When Canada and the FNI went back to the negotiating table in 2013 and rendered a ‘Supplemental Agreement’, an addition to the original Agreement-in-Principle that introduced the point system to effectively quantify applicants’ Indigeneity.

At a protest in Corner Brook last January, Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Chief Brendan Mitchell said while his predecessor, Brendan Sheppard, was the sole signatory of the supplemental agreement on behalf of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq, Mitchell and other councillors in fact voted to support it.

He said at the time he thought he was making the right decision and that the agreement would enable upward of 75,000 additional applications to be reviewed before the founding members’ list was established.

Asked why he doesn’t pull out of the agreement, Mitchell said while he acknowledges the need to fight for those being disenfranchised by the process, if the FNI or band withdraws it would violate the Supplemental Agreement and “possibly we would terminate the Agreement-in-Principle,” a scenario he said risks “destroy[ing] everything we built over five decades for our people, and we [would] have nothing left.”

In February Mitchell called the Qalipu enrolment controversy “the the next big reconciliation issue that Canada will have to deal with.”

In March Corner Brook newspaper the Western Star reported Sheppard said the enrolment process was “unfolding as it should.”

“Stolen Identity” and the “farce” of Qalipu membership criteria

White said in the early 2000s the FNI, of which he was a board member while also serving as Flat Bay Chief, tabled a proposal to Canada regarding recognition of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq with membership criteria based on a “fourth generation rule.”

“We had learned that there were people in society, Aboriginal people who could trace their ancestry maybe 100 years back or 200 years back, who had totally assimilated. And we thought, if you look at the community, if you look at the families, and if you look at the people — if we put a fourth generation rule as the identifying factor for our people, we may be able to control to some degree our membership and our identity process that wouldn’t have anybody who wanted to be involved for any other purpose other than the objectives of the organization to be distracted away from us and not have any involvement with us.

Photo by Justin Brake.

White said previous proposals for the recognition of Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland included provisions for a “fourth generation rule” to determine membership. Photo by Justin Brake.

“That fourth generation rule is what we offered and suggested as being the criteria for identifying Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland. The government, in their wisdom, or lack of wisdom, along with the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, threw that away.”

It was called the 2002 Mi’kmaq Regime, White said, and in addition to a fourth generation rule for membership it proposed a governance structure that would have seen Mi’kmaq communities on the Island maintain a degree of autonomy and a tribal council to “assume the responsibilities to be the political negotiators with the federal government to make sure the federal government held up to its responsibility, which was constitutionally protected, and make programs and services available to Aboriginal people that are available through the Indian Act to everybody else in this country.

“Now we have nothing,” he said. “What was negotiated I wouldn’t even call watered down — I’d call it a dried up river [compared to] what we were looking for. What they have now is health care and education — basically that’s it. There’s nothing there about culture, there’s nothing there about housing, there’s nothing there about community infrastructure. None of those things is there.

“The first process they went through of identifying legitimate people based on applications wasn’t destructive enough to the identity — they brought in [the Supplemental Agreement], which would convolute it even more,” he continued.

Pull Quote Calvin White“Because now Indian identity wasn’t based on genealogy or on lifestyle — it was based on how many visits did you make to Newfoundland if you live in Ontario, how many receipts did you keep for phone calls to Corner Brook, how many affidavits can you get from somebody who seen you picking blueberries by the side of the road when they were driving to the park on the weekend.

The criteria “had nothing to do with identity. It has absolutely nothing to do with who’s Indian and who’s not Indian,” he said. “It has to do with who’s intelligent enough to manipulate the system. That’s all I need to do. If I know how to manipulate the system I can become an Indian in Newfoundland.”

White said the problem of people claiming Mi’kmaq identity without knowing what it means to be Mi’kmaq or having lived an Aboriginal way of life has created a “very serious [issue] in our Aboriginal movement” amounting to “stolen identity”.

The Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland have “become a joke in the eyes of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters right across this country — because they know that this is a farce. Nobody can be recognized and be given status as an Indian person because they picked blueberries.

“Nobody should become an Indian because they kept receipts of how many times they called home, or they kept receipts of their plane fares,” he said.

White also said the current membership criteria regime has backfired by excluding members of the Mi’kmaq community who left the province in pursuit of work and education.

“None of our sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters should be forbidden recognition in this band because they were inspired by their parents, or by the band councils in the communities where they live, to get an education and go to work somewhere else in Canada to better themselves,” he said.

“Why should they be denied who they are because they took up the challenge to what this organization was set up to do in the beginning?

“They’re the people that we wanted to inspire, with the hope that the nine bands that were in this community started their development process that we would be able to reach out to the experts of those young educated people to come back to their communities and be the resource people that we need.

“We got lost because people lost sight of the objective.”

“We gotta stop dead in our tracks”

Asked if he had any advice for individuals considering running for Qalipu chief or council in next year’s band election, White said change must come before the election.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done right now, because if we wait until 2018 the damage that is happening right now will be cemented, and there’s going to be no opportunity for change.”

He called the current Qalipu leadership’s “silence” on the matter “unfortunate” and “frightening.”

“I don’t hear the leadership challenging the government’s decision,” he said. “They can make all kinds of excuses, but that doesn’t satisfy me. Leadership is leadership, it’s not one that should be intimidated by government regulations or policies. Leadership is to argue change in these policies, change in these attitudes.

Pull Quote Calvin White“We shouldn’t be afraid of the power of government and allow it to prevent us from standing up for what is right and just, and the responsibility that we inherit whenever we offer ourselves as leaders.”

White said whether it’s the current Qalipu council that fights Canada on the enrolment issue, or those planning to challenge the current decision-makers to get the job done, “we need to stop what’s happening right now, we need strong leadership.

“If it’s the leadership that’s there now, it needs to take notice. And if it’s new people that are tempted to challenge that leadership, they need to stand up,” he said.

“We’re facing a crisis that needs attention, not in the [election] campaign, but now.”

During his 2015 election campaign Mitchell promised to form an elder advisory committee to inform council. That has not happened.

Asked what advice he would give if there was in fact an elder committee, and if he was on it, White said he would tell the chief and council that “we gotta stop dead in our tracks, because we’re running away from the people that we’re supposed to be representing. We’re leaving them behind, the [impoverished], the uneducated, the elders, the children. We’re running away from them. We’ve taken off like a jet plane, looking out for ourselves.

“Let’s stop. Let’s allow them to catch up. And then when they catch up, let’s start walking with them. The only time we should start running again is when they all can run. That would be my advice.”

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