Tension is mounting within the Mi’kmaq community in Newfoundland, where anxiety around the impending results of the controversial Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band enrolment process is manifesting in protests and anger.
On Monday, in the second protest this month, about two dozen people marched from the Qalipu office in Corner Brook to the Park Street office of Long Range Mountains MP Gudie Hutchings, where Qalipu Grand Chief Brendan Mitchell faced questions from status and non-status folks and was accused of failing to fight for the tens of thousands of applicants who are expected to be rejected for band membership and Indian status in just a couple weeks.
On Jan. 31 letters will be sent out letters to the approximately 103,000 people who applied for membership in the Qalipu band to inform them of Canada’s decision following a complete review of all applications. The review was prompted by a ‘Supplemental Agreement’ reached between Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) in 2013 after the Qalipu enrolment committee was inundated with applications from tens of thousands more people claiming Mi’kmaq identity than anticipated.
Though Hutchings—who represents thousands of Mi’kmaq and has previously been accused of infringing on Indigenous rights in this province for personal gain—was in St. Anthony Monday, she has since scheduled a meeting on Thursday morning with protest organizer and Qalipu member Blain Ford, who has invited Qalipu Grand Chief Brendan Mitchell, Mi’kmaq First Nation Assembly of Newfoundland Chair Dave Wells and a few others to join in and discuss their respective views on the contentious matter.
Others took the opportunity Monday to express their views and concerns. Qalipu member Keith Cormier shared a letter he sent to Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC) Minister Carolyn Bennett, pleading with the minister over the expected outcome of the enrolment review which he says will see two of his sons and one grandchild lose their Indian status and membership in the Qalipu band because they live outside the province.
Critics of the process, and even Mitchell himself, have been saying for years now that Canada’s way of establishing the band will create divides within families and communities due to the criteria set out to define who is Mi’kmaw and who is not.
“The question is very simple, minister,” Cormier said, reading from his letter. “Which section of the constitution of the country of Canada will your government be using to ‘un-Indian’ my two sons and my granddaughter?”
Which section of the constitution of the country of Canada will your government be using to ‘un-Indian’ my two sons and my granddaughter? –Keith Cormier, Qalipu Member
As Indigenous Affairs Critic in February 2014 Bennett criticized the Harper Government over the Supplemental Agreement, arguing it would limit Qalipu applicants’ ability to take legal action against Canada for removing or denying their Indian status.
The supplemental agreement, signed in June 2013, did not change the criteria for Qalipu membership but provided “clarity” and “guidance”, according to the Qalipu website, on to how applications would be assessed. It also established a ‘point system’ that makes it difficult for many living outside a Mi’kmaq community on the Island to earn enough points for Canada to consider them a Mi’kmaw person. Many have charged this discriminates against those who were forced to leave the Island to find work elsewhere.
“The Liberal Party believes that any legislation, directives or policies to implement agreements between the Crown and the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation must be based on the premise that legitimate applicants must not be excluded from the enrolment process,” Bennett said in the House of Commons on Feb. 28, 2014.
Now many are asking why Bennett, in her capacity as INAC minister, is not amending or repealing Bill C-25, the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Act, to ensure the applications are reviewed according to the terms and directives of the original Agreement-in-Principle.
Chief Mitchell, who joined the march, told protestors he has met with Bennett on three occasions to plead his case, and that he has been asking for a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but to no avail. He said he is hoping to meet with Bennett once more before the end of January.
Outside Hutchings’ office he fielded questions from protestors and a local journalist over his prior support for the Supplemental Agreement as vice-chief when the previous Qalipu band council voted in favour of it in 2013.
NTV News’ Don Bradshaw asked the chief if he thought it was ironic that he was protesting against an agreement he supported almost four years ago.
Mitchell said the previous band council was trying to “salvage the situation” where approximately 75,000 applicants would be excluded from an opportunity to become first founding members of the Qalipu band.
“We had 75,000-plus people who weren’t in the deal anymore, and in the spirit of trying to get these people involved, that is the spirit in which the Supplemental Agreement was agreed to by a show of hands by our council,” he said. “But again, the people who were involved in that had no involvement in the negotiation, the structuring of the Supplemental Agreement, nor did they have any involvement in a point system — that all came later.”
Echoing many status and non-status Mi’kmaq caught up in the enrolment process Bradshaw asked Mitchell why the current band council doesn’t “walk away” from the agreement and “start the process again?”
Mitchell said doing so would violate the Supplemental Agreement and “possibly we would terminate the Agreement-in-Principle,” a scenario he said risks “destro[ing] everything we built over five decades for our people, and we [would] have nothing left.”
Stand up to Ottawa; it has been done by many Nations before. –Julia Sager, Vice-Chair, MFNAN
MFNAN Vice-Chair Julia Sager responded, saying Mitchell doesn’t know for certain that is how Canada would react, and that he should fight for all to have their applications reviewed under the original terms of the agreement.
“You have a choice — please [make] the right choice,” she said, raising her voice at the chief. “Stand up to Ottawa; it has been done by many Nations before. If you don’t stand up now, we are going to get the crumbs that Ottawa has always given us.”
Wells said MFNAN “knew this was coming” and that the letters being sent out later this month will be the “first shot across the bow by the federal government” at those who the Association feels are legally eligible to join the Qalipu First Nation.
“You talk about inclusion; why are we being excluded? So if the only place you will listen is the courts, so be it,” he added, referring to the legal action the MFNAN is planning to take against Canada on behalf of its non-status members.
The MFNAN has been encouraging all non-status Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland—and those who expect to be non-status after receiving their letters—to obtain membership in the organization and support the legal fight that is brewing.
A half-century battle with Ottawa
In 2008 an Agreement-in-Principle to form the Qalipu band was signed and an application deadline for first founding member standing was set for Nov. 30, 2009. The expected 11,000 applications turned into roughly 26,000, a number the enrolment committee at the time could not process by deadline.
Elder and former Flat Bay Chief Calvin White—one of the founders of the local Aboriginal movement who in the late 1960s joined a small group of Mi’kmaq, Innu and Inuit to fight for recognition of Newfoundland and Labrador’s First Peoples—filed for a federal court injunction in February 2010 against the formation of the band to ensure as many eligible applicants as possible would be accepted into the band as founding members.
The motion was eventually struck down, and though White incurred enormous legal bills at his own expense the delay enabled the enrolment committee to process all of the applications it had received by the Nov. 30, 2009 deadline. The Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band was created on Sept. 22, 2011, and on June 21, 2012 its nearly 24,000 members were registered under Canada’s Indian Act.
By the fall of 2012, however, more than 100,000 applications had been submitted for Indian status and membership in the Qalipu band, a number that prompted Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) to negotiate the Supplemental Agreement, which was announced on July 4, 2013 and began the enrolment process anew. All Qalipu applicants were invited to submit further supporting documentation to prove their Indigeneity.
They may take the card, but that doesn’t mean you’re not Mi’kmaw. –Blain Ford, Protest Organizer
The deadline for submitting evidence to meet Canada and the FNI’s definition of a Qalipu Mi’kmaw person was Jan. 31, 2014.
Ford told those gathered in the cold that membership in the band and Indian status in Canada are distinctly different from one’s self identity as a Mi’kmaw person.
“They may take the card, but that doesn’t mean you’re not Mi’kmaw,” he said. “Be proud and be loud. Stand up. We all have voices. We all can be heard. Let’s make it right.”
But some at the event insisted Canada’s recognition of them and their families as status Indians, and their membership in the Qalipu band, are important to their identity and to their personal well-being and security as Indigenous people.
On Wednesday morning Ford announced on social media that another protest will take place outside Hutchings’ office to coincide with the meeting inside.
Chief Mitchell said Monday he would like to see Qalipu members and applicants living in the National Capitol Region protesting outside the INAC office in Gatineau.
In 2015 the Trudeau Government campaigned on a promise to build “nation to nation” relationships with Canada’s Indigenous Nations, and to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report’s calls to action and respect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.