The chief of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, elders and other members of Newfoundland’s Mi’kmaq community say reconciliation on the Island is not possible unless Canada fixes the mess it has created through the Qalipu enrolment process.
That’s part of the message Chief Brendan Mitchell and Elders Calvin White and Odelle Pike are bringing to Ottawa Friday when they meet with senior officials at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Also joining the entourage from Newfoundland are Qalipu Vice-Chief Joe Bouzanne, Qalipu Band Manager Randy Drover, and Glenwood Ward Councillor Francis Skeard.
On Jan. 31 letters were sent out to the more than 100,000 applicants to the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band. Roughly 68,000 of those letters denied self-identified Mi’kmaq Indian status and membership in the landless band.
The band’s founding members’ list, INAC announced on Feb. 7, will consist of 18,044 people, while more than 10,000 existing members will have their Indian status revoked in 2018.
As the letters continue to arrive in mailboxes across the Island and Canada, more and more stories are emerging from Newfoundland’s Mi’kmaq community of families divided by the controversial enrolment process and its criteria for Qalipu membership, some accepted by Canada as status Indians and others rejected due to insufficient proof of Indigeneity through a point system.
On social media and at public meetings organized by Qalipu and the Mi’kmaq First Nation Assembly of Newfoundland (MFNAN) in recent days and weeks, Qalipu members and applicants have shared their stories with Chief Brendan Mitchell, who says the outcome of the enrolment process and INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett’s unwillingness to amend legislation outlining how people’s Indigeneity is determined are making the formation of Qalipu First Nation “the next big reconciliation issue that Canada will have to deal with.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was about the treatment of people in residential schools, treatment of missing and murdered Aboriginal women…and we have another very serious issue developing here,” Mitchell told The Independent after a MFNAN-organized community meeting in Corner Brook Thursday night.
“There is no reconciliation”
An agreement in principle to form the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band was ratified by Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) in 2008. At the time it was expected around 11,000 members of the Island’s Mi’kmaq community would apply for membership in the band. Upward of 29,000 applications were received by the initial November 2009 deadline for first founding members’ standing in the band.
In February 2010 White, a former Chief of the Flat Bay Band, filed for an injunction to stall Qalipu’s inception until more people were able to submit their applications for membership, a move that effectively enabled thousands more self-identified Mi’kmaq to join the band as founding members.
The band’s enrolment committee received more than 100,000 applications from people claiming Mi’kmaq ancestry and identity.
In 2013 Canada and the FNI negotiated a ‘supplemental agreement’ that would mandate the reassessment of all applications, including those of the more than 23,000 people already given Indian status and accepted into Qalipu First Nation.
The outcome has created a situation for Newfoundland Mi’kmaq that is “worse than before the Qalipu process began,” says Kelly Anne Butler, a member of the Mi’kmaq community from Bay St. George and an Aboriginal Affairs Officer at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus.
“There is no reconciliation,” she says. “We’re now worse off, and as these applications come back to people and they see all the stuff they put in their file wasn’t even counted because of so many technical reasons…it goes totally against the whole meaning of reconciliation.
“If you really want to have a relationship with someone, then you don’t ‘x’ them out on a technicality. That’s not reconciliation—that’s like [saying] you gotta jump through these hoops in our bureaucracy or else we don’t want you to be a part of it.”
In late 2013, early 2014 Butler took three months off from her PhD studies to work “all day, every day” on her own and her mother’s support packages after the supplemental agreement requested applicants provide more evidence that they meet the requirements based on ancestry, geographic location, self-identification and acceptance by a Mi’kmaq community.
By the time she had gathered more than a thousand of pages of documentation to support the two applications, there was no time left to help her brother with his. As her family expected, Butler’s brother was denied membership and status.
She says the incongruity of tight deadlines and the time necessary to gather documentation and other proof of Indigeneity was just one of the problems the reformed enrolment process, after the supplemental agreement was put in place, contributed to the outcome for tens of thousands of people.
We’re seeing a lot of lateral violence, we’re seeing a lot of people hurt, a lot of families being divided. –Odelle Pike
Lack of financial resources, literacy challenges due to the legal nature of the language used in applications and correspondence, and access to support services, which were available in some communities and completely absent in others, all compounded the difficulty people had navigating the process, Butler explains.
“The biggest problem with this process is that the most vulnerable people are the ones that are least likely to be able to step over those thresholds and probably are the most Mi’kmaw, if we’re going to talk about degrees of being Indigenous—people who are still living on the land, people who are of advanced age, and people who stayed in those rural areas and didn’t move to urban areas [who] have a lower level of formal education. Those people would have the hardest time unless they had some family member or friend who was guiding them along the way.”
Among the stories coming to the fore are those of longtime members of Newfoundland’s Mi’kmaq community and their family members being denied status.
White, who in the early 1970s co-founded the movement for Mi’kmaq recognition in Newfoundland, was finally recognized by Canada as a status Indian, but not all of his children and grandchildren were, a “clear example that there’s something wrong with the process,” says Butler.
On Wednesday White called the enrolment process a “joke,” but said no one’s laughing.
White says his granddaughter, who lives on the Miawpukek First Nation reserve at Conne River, was rejected, as was her daughter.
His great granddaughter was given more points for visits to Flat Bay than his granddaughter was given,” he told The Independent. “How can a five-year-old accumulate more points for visitation to the home community [than] the mother? This child wasn’t travelling by herself.”
White said he could “go on and on with the examples of idiotic outcomes because of some oversights or decisions where due diligence hasn’t been done.
“People who have been identified and recognized as Indian people from the time they were born are now rejected.”
He also points to John Oliver, the first president of the FNI, who he says was rejected.
“How can these things happen? Somebody who made that kind of contribution and that kind of sacrifice back in the ‘70s should have been grandfathered in without any questions whatsoever.”
Many have claimed they were rejected because they left the Island for work or education, an outcome Mi’kmaw Elder and Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network President Odelle Pike told the Western Star last week infringes on people’s charter right to travel freely.
Pike told The Independent Thursday the ramifications of the enrolment process are highly visible in Newfoundland’s Mi’kmaq communities.
“We’re seeing a lot of lateral violence, we’re seeing a lot of people hurt, a lot of families being divided, and the list goes on,” she said.
Pike said she plans to tell INAC officials in Ottawa “that the agreement in principle we initially signed was to give our band members recognition, and the supplemental agreement has done a lot of harm to helping those people who were initially members of an FNI band to get into the system, mainly because of residency—and residency should have no part to play in that.”
She said she would like to see Ottawa abandon the supplemental agreement and “go with the initial agreement in principle.
“There’s a lot of people hurting…and most of those people have had their cards for six years, and now the government is telling them no, you can’t have that card, it doesn’t belong to you anymore, we’re going to take it back. And that’s not good enough either.”
Can’t walk away from agreement: Chief
Mitchell has faced criticism in recent weeks over his participation in 2013 as an FNI board member who voted in favour of the supplemental agreement, but he insists the intention at the time was to create a situation where the additional 75,000 applicants waiting to be reviewed for membership had a chance at joining Qalipu as founding members.
Qalipu and the FNI are “locked into this business,” he told a crowd gathered in the Flat Bay Band office at No’kmaq Village on Feb. 13. “We’re a party to this agreement whether we like it or not. This agreement is legal and binding right now, and it’s supported by Bill C-25, passed in Ottawa by the Conservatives and to this day supported by the Liberal government.”
Mitchell said he has met with Minister Bennett on three occasions to discuss the supplemental agreement, as well as Bill C-25, which Bennett vehemently opposed in 2014 when she was Indigenous Affairs critic. But he said so far his concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
“I begged Minister Bennett not to do this — I begged her,” the chief told The Independent Friday. “At that time [her] view was, a deal is a deal, we have an agreement in place, and Canada’s going to see it through the way it was developed.”
In 2014 Bennett criticized the Harper Government for its handling of the Qalipu enrolment process and its attempt, via the supplemental agreement, to indemnify itself of wrongdoing in the event individuals given Indian status and Qalipu membership had their status revoked.
“Pre-emptively removing access to legal damages that an individual would be otherwise entitled to, flowing from an enrolment process that has been the subject of such confusion and controversy is simply wrong,” she said in the House of Commons.
Bennett has not spoken publicly on the fallout from the Qalipu enrolment process since the letters went out on Jan. 31, nor has she responded to an interview request from The Independent.
Mitchell said Friday’s meeting in Ottawa “is not entirely a negotiation — it’ll be laying down what we’re hearing, what we’re feeling, try to impress on Canada that this situation is far more serious than [they] realize.
“We have families and communities hurting and divided, we have people across the country who are extremely upset with what’s happening, we have 10,512 people who were given status in this process…and Canada’s gonna say to them: Give it back to me, you’re not a status Indian anymore.”
The chief has been urged by some to walk away from the agreement and continue fighting for recognition of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq in a way that would afford equality to all.
That’s a “high risk” political move that would create a “very dangerous situation to be in” for Qalipu, he said, explaining Canada could walk away from the entire deal, leaving all Newfoundland Mi’kmaq outside of Miawpukek First Nation with no recognition.
“We could lose everything we’ve built up over these decades. What will 18,044 people say to me? What will 4,679 coming into this process say to me?” he said.
Butler believes while Friday’s meeting in Ottawa won’t produce a new agreement, it could be an opportunity to “gain an inch” with Canada and negotiate one or two items.
“Where it is right now, there ought to be a way they can say they will go back to these family clusters and say, let’s evaluate them as families instead of as individuals,” she said.
White said if the government won’t budge and help out Mi’kmaq who have been denied status and discriminated against in the enrolment process, then as an Elder and member of the Flat Bay Indian Band, if it were the “only way that justice can be brought, then I would have no hesitation whatsoever walking away from the agreement.”
As one of the visionaries who mobilized Indigenous people in Newfoundland to fight for recognition almost a half century ago, White said he “will not be able to sleep at night unless I stood up and challenged this mess.
“I feel obligated to do that, and that’s what I’m going to do—with the support of Qalipu or without them. But it’s going to be done,” he said.
“Still an Indian problem”
Mitchell said he will be asking INAC on Friday to let the 10,000-plus people set to lose their status remain on Canada’s Indian registry, and said a request has already been made to lower the threshold under the point system to allow people who fell one or two points short to be accepted into the band.
He said Friday’s meeting is only the first in a series Qalipu will have with the federal government to seek a resolution to the flawed enrolment process, and that once attempts are made to negotiate a better outcome with Canada, “it will be up to the people to tell me what to do.”
In the meantime, the chief is advising those who’ve been rejected to join MFNAN, which represents all non-status Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland and is preparing to launch a legal challenge against the federal government over the supplemental agreement.
“If you think there’s an opportunity to help, I encourage you to join that organization. It costs $20 and they need money to do this,” he said in Flat Bay last week.
MFNAN Chair Dave Wells announced Thursday in Corner Brook that the organization is consulting its lawyers and hopes to file its lawsuit by the end of April. He estimates the cost will be upward of $250,000 and that the organization is about halfway there.
I think we need to give up on the idea of reconciliation with the government. — Kelly Anne Butler
Of the 85,000 Qalipu applicants who were rejected, Wells said only about 3,500 have joined the MFNAN and paid the $20 fee—$5 for children. He said the legal challenge can’t be launched until the organization has enough support and money.
Wells believes the federal government will have a “flimsy argument” in the court case. “We’re hoping the judge sees it our way, and if he does he’ll order the government to change [the supplemental agreement].
“We’d like to see the supplemental agreement thrown out, and maybe that will happen before this whole thing is over [and] go back to the original agreement.”
In the meantime, the way INAC and the Trudeau Government are handling the Qalipu enrolment fallout give some little hope for reconciliation.
“I think we need to give up on the idea of reconciliation with the government,” says Butler.
“It still should be a demand and an expectation, but I think the only way we’re going to achieve reconciliation within Canada is through the people,” she adds, explaining Qalipu First Nation and the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland need to build relationships with Indigenous groups outside the province.
“We’re now in the national news for really negative things and negative portrayals and negative stereotypes about who we actually are,” Butler says, explaining the history of the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq is not well understood off the Island. “But at the same time the process has brought in thousands of people who have been able to figure out what it was about their family history that was missing—there’s a whole element of discovery for people that has happened that, for me, is just amazing.
To Canada the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland are “still an ‘Indian problem,'” she says. “The amount of money [the federal government has] spent to reduce the numbers, to me, has to be equal to what they’re trying to save in the benefits that they don’t want to give out. So it isn’t about the funding issue — it’s about wanting fewer numbers of Indians on the Indian register, and it always has been.”