On Friday members of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation will elect a council and chief to lead the band through the next three years of its so far turbulent formative period.
Chosen leaders will have their hands full navigating Canada’s largest Indian Act band through a controversial enrolment process, growing demands for language and cultural initiatives, and a tense relationship with the Mi’kmaq Grand Council in Nova Scotia.
Current Chief Brendan Sheppard, who in 2007—as head of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI)—negotiated with the Government of Canada the terms of the band’s formation, was grandfathered in as the inaugural chief and then elected in the band’s first democratic vote in 2012.
With upward of 100,000 Newfoundlanders now identifying as Mi’kmaq and some 80,000 still awaiting Canada’s decision regarding their Indian status—a long-delayed process now slated for completion in June 2016—the landless Qalipu First Nation is unprecedented in Canadian history, for its size, the circumstances from which it arose, and the criteria on which the federal government is basing its decision on band membership.
In an interview earlier this week Sheppard said his hands have been full getting the band off the ground and running, but that he feels he has proven himself up for the job.
“In less than three years Qalipu has established country-wide recognition from the different federal government departments for its accountability and transparency — so that alone is the first step to make sure we’re on the right path to representing our people,” he said, praising the band’s fiscal track record so far.
“If we look at what has transpired in three years, we’ve employed more than 50 people across the province to provide service to the members, we’ve paid out $40 million in uninsured health [benefits], we’ve spent $24 million in education, and…Qalipu has changed the national policy on post-secondary education.”
More than a business
But fiscal prudence alone does not make the markings of a First Nations Chief, say two men challenging Sheppard for the position in the Oct. 23 election.
“The band shouldn’t be run like a business, or a company or a corporation,” said Shane Snook of Flat Bay. “It needs to be run by the culture, by the people, by ethics.”
Snook, who is 28 and has worked on an off in the Alberta oil patch, said while there’s undoubtedly a lot of paperwork and administrative toil ahead, discourse around the Qalipu First Nation’s formation and membership should centre around ethics, particularly with respect to the values, customs and principles of Mi’kmaq culture.
“There is a lot of things to address, and I think it’s important for us to be led by the culture,” he said.
Snook has never been involved in band leadership or politics but said based on what he has heard from members at various town hall gatherings in communities like Glenwood and Flat Bay, he feels can lead in a more principled way than the current chief.
I think it’s important for us to be led by the culture. — Shane Snook
Sheppard has come under fire, including from elders and councillors who say he has not had a respectable presence in the communities, that he has neglected the development of language and culture in favour of developing the business side of the band, and that he has contravened traditional Mi’kmaq values and governance practices in making major decisions without full consensus from his council.
Qalipu Corner Brook Councillor Brendan Mitchell, who is also challenging Sheppard for the role of chief, said during an interview earlier this week that he’s running first and foremost because “people are not happy with the current leadership.”
As a councillor of three years Mitchell has become increasingly “frustrated with the lack of involvement, the lack of proper participation, [and] stuff being done without any councillors even knowing about it,” he said, citing Sheppard’s announcement at the recent fracking review panel consultation in Port au Port that he would administer a survey to see what Qalipu members in the area have to say about fracking and its impacts on people there.
“It was never even mentioned in council,” said Mitchell. “He consulted with none of us on it and made the decision to do that on his own.
“So I’m running because I want to make some change. People are saying to me the current regime is not working that well, there’s a lack of community involvement, there’s a lack of interest in our youth, there’s a lack of interest with respect to our communities, with respect to our women’s organizations, and I could go on. And there’s absolutely a lack of respect to our member communities with respect to important environmental concerns like fracking for people in Port au Port and Bay St. George.”
Two years ago, after council signed a letter of intent to work with Black Spruce Exploration, a junior oil company looking to drill for oil on traditional Mi’kmaq lands, Sheppard told The Independent he was neither for nor against fracking—the proposed method of extraction at the time—but that if the province gave the oil industry the green light, he wanted jobs for Qalipu members.
“As we did with Emera, as we did with any other company or industry, we search out these people and we look to form a partnership in order to create employment opportunities, economic development and education opportunities,” the chief said at the time.
Having worked in the oil industry, Snook said if elected Chief it’s unlikely he would support an oil industry presence on Mi’kmaq lands or in the Gulf of St. Lawrence because what he’s witnessed in the industry is “not pretty”.
“I don’t want that stuff here and I don’t think anyone would,” he said.
Likewise, Mitchell said at the fracking review panel’s Corner Brook consultation last week that fracking ought to be off the table in Mi’kma’ki.
Establishing relations with the Mi’kmaq Grand Council
Under Sheppard’s leadership Qalipu First Nation has angered traditional Mi’kmaq leaders on the Grand Council in Nova Scotia, who have grave concerns about the Qalipu enrolment process and Canada’s discretion to double, triple or even quadruple the entire Mi’kmaq population without the consent of Mi’kmaq leaders.
Since time immemorial the Grand Council governed the entire Mi’kmaq Nation, employing a strong principle of consensus—in accordance with traditional Mi’kmaq values and principles—with respect to decision-making.
The Council, which is comprised of honourable and respected individuals—typically chiefs, elders and other spiritual leaders from the districts throughout Mi’kma’ki—lost significant power when Canada legislated the Indian Act and imposed colonial forms of governance on the Mi’kmaq, namely the enacting of democratic elections and the rule that the federal government would only deal with elected Mi’kmaq officials.
Today the Grand Council still plays an important and authoritative role in maintaining Mi’kmaq spirituality and other traditional values and customs, and for generations has included Mi’kmaq leaders from Miawpukek First Nation (Conne River) in Ktaqmkuk (Newfoundland).
It has not taken kindly to the Qalipu band’s enrolment process, however, as well as what it perceives as a dangerous disregard for the potential consequences of expanding the Mi’kmaq Nation to include tens of thousands of people with distant connections to the culture and ancestry while Mi’kmaq children living on reserves are being denied status because the rules are different for them.
In 2013 the Grand Council submitted a letter to the United Nations expressing concern that by establishing the Qalipu First Nation and selecting its membership based on unprecedented and lax criteria, Canada could be in violation of Mi’kmaq Aboriginal and treaty rights—and under the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, international human rights—while discriminating against the 20,000-person Mi’kmaq Nation in Atlantic Canada.
“The Grand Council, as a kinship state, has always determined who was and was not a Mi’kmaw. Through our oral history, language, and family kinship, our identity is based in our collective understanding passed down through our Elders and family members,” the letter reads.
This unilateral action unnecessarily creates complex issues of who speaks for the Mi’kmaq — internationally, nationally, and regionally. — Mi’kmaq Grand Council
“We have never relinquished this inalienable inherent right to self-identification in any Treaty with the Crown or with Canada. This unilateral action unnecessarily creates complex issues of who speaks for the Mi’kmaq — internationally, nationally, and regionally.”
Breaking with Mi’kmaq history, principles and convention, as Indian Act chief of Qalipu First Nation, Sheppard said he is determined Qalipu can forge ahead on its own without the consent of the Grand Council and without being a recognized member of the Mi’kmaq Nation.
“When it comes to the Grand Council…they don’t have no time for the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation people. As a matter of fact, only criticism,” he said.
“We got where we’re at today because of the leadership I led, from the Federation of Newfoundland Indians — not the Assembly of First Nations, not the Grand Council, or not even the Congress of Aboriginal People,” he continued. “Quite frankly we can do things on our own. We were forgotten about in this country since 1949, and I have yet to see anything that led me to believe we had the support of these other Aboriginal groups in the country, including the Grand Council and the other national organizations.”
Mitchell and Snook admit the enrolment process and its digression from Mi’kmaq customs will continue to make for an extremely controversial process, and that navigating it will require solid leadership from the Qalipu council.
Both candidates said, however, that respectful dialogue must be opened up with the Grand Council, and that they don’t share Sheppard’s animosity toward the main governing body of Mi’kma’ki.
“[Qalipu] said we’re forming a band without [the Grand Council], and that’s a big problem because now our legitimacy is being questioned by a bunch of chiefs in the Maritimes who we really need to be working with better,” said Mitchell.
“If I’m elected chief, I have to try and repair that relationship. Because right now the current chief has made no attempt to try to deal with that issue.”
Snook said he has already been speaking with one of the Grand Council members and hopes that, if elected, he could establish better relations and hopefully see a Qalipu member sit on the Council one day.
“It’s a very challenging situation, and quite frankly I don’t think it was handled well to begin with,” he said. “I think it would have been better if we had gone with the Grand Council’s blessings because it would have clarified a lot of things.”
But Snook and Mitchell both recognize that at this point—particularly after the recent federal court ruling against Canada’s rejection of applications that were deemed invalid because they were incomplete—there is likely no way to both satisfy the Grand Council’s wishes on Mi’kmaq membership and give the remaining 80,000 Qalipu applicants equal consideration for Indian status as the existing members.
“My understanding is that it was [the Grand Council’s] right to identify who is or is not a Mi’kmaw individual, so I think that would have helped a great deal with one of the major concerns, which is self-identification and acceptance by the band. Those could have been covered by the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, and I think that would have been a big hurdle for us to avoid,” Snook said before acknowledging the opportunity to do the right thing has passed.
“The best we can do going forward is do our best to make sure everyone has a fair shot of getting in according to the original agreement,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mitchell predicts in the end “the band will be kept small,” though he didn’t say how he sees the process, which is likely to be lengthy and could include further legal battles, playing out.
“A lot of people will be very unhappy with the enrolment process; families and individuals will be very upset. It will be the most turbulent issue facing the Qalipu council and membership in 2016 — probably in the next three years,” he said.
“Truthfully, we didn’t just get a black eye with this one — we got two black eyes so far, we got a few teeth knocked out, and we got a few cracked ribs over what happened so far. June 2016 is going to be a tough one for this council,” Mitchell continued, saying he would “like to be there because I’d like to think I have a better chance than Brendan Sheppard to try to fix this mess. And more importantly, I’ll have the will to do it.”
Expanding language and cultural offerings
Sheppard praised the creation of the Qalipu Cultural Foundation, a corporate entity launched to address the growing demand from Mi’kmaq people around the province for language and cultural teachings and other related initiatives.
“What’s happening is that too many people are on the Internet and they’re taking the cultural language and they’re going in different directions,” he said.
“But we need to have consistency, and if we have people going in different directions, not wanting to be involved with Qalipu, not wanting to take part in the cultural foundation and work as a united group here in this province, then the separation is going to be there and it’s certainly not going to be anything good for our members.”
The chief said it is natural that council took a bit of time to get cultural initiatives off the ground, but that on the whole “Qalipu has been very, very successful in the last three years as an Indian Act band.
“The first year we were pretty much in a transition from FNI to Qalipu, but needed that time to create policies and procedures all supported by the people who sit at the table,” he said. “I take direction from the board of directors, now the Qalipu council members, and as well we survey the membership from time to time, and if people direct us to do something we at Qalipu will take the direction from those people. You know as well as I do that it’s impossible to provide whatever you might want to do and satisfy everyone — that’s impossible.”
Mitchell and Snook both said they would work to enhance language initiatives and other forms of cultural teachings to members across the province, even those living outside the Qalipu districts.
When you’re teaching language, you’re teaching culture. — Brendan Mitchell
“A lot of people are spread out through Newfoundland right now and it’s difficult for a lot of people to get involved, especially if they’re away from one of the culture-heavy communities like Flat Bay,” said Snook. “I would love to see some organization and a little bit of funding to have each ward have a gathering location available and set regular dates, and well as reaching out to the Mi’kmaq Grand Council or to the Elders in those areas to come to us and teach us.”
Snook and Mitchell also both said they support Elder Victor Muise’s call for implementation of Mi’kmaq language teachings in elementary schools in the Qalipu districts, but that it might take some time.
“I definitely support the language being taught and getting our kids involved with the language and the culture,” said Snook. “The trick is I think it might take us a little while. It’s so much easier to learn when you’re a youth…they just soak it up so easy.”
Mitchell said he has met a lot of people who are “starving for culture,” and that the formation of the Qalipu band has “created an awakening among people who for many years were kept down in terms of who they were and really didn’t want to tell anyone who they were in terms of being Mi’kmaq.
“But it’s changing,” he continued. “We’re becoming the new majority and people are really hungry for this stuff. And we have to feed that hunger by providing things like what Victor Muise is talking about, by providing services and opportunities for people to learn the language — and we have to start young. We’re not paying enough attention to our youth, and this is a great way to do it. When you’re teaching language you’re teaching culture, you’re talking about other things that have gone on culturally with the Mi’kmaq people over the years, you’re talking about our traditions and our history. So this is an important issue, and I’m all for it, and I’m right there to learn it.”
Mitchell also said if elected he would create an Elder advisory committee to inform council.
Members of Qalipu First Nation will elect their chief, vice chiefs and councillors tomorrow. Polling stations are open 12-8 p.m. and will be set up in the communities of Benoit’s Cove, Corner Brook, Grand Falls-Windsor, Flat Bay, Gander Bay, Glenwood, Port au Port, Stephenville and St. George’s. Click here for more information on the Qalipu election.