APTN National News
When Newfoundland first joined Canada in 1949, its new premier Joey Smallwood declared that there were no Indians there.
But Mi’kmaq Elder Calvin White from Flat Bay, NL begs to differ.
“We were-I’ll be bold enough to use the word-shafted. Because the federal government and the provincial government both denied that there were any Indians living in Newfoundland. Period,” he said.
Thus the Mi’kmaq living there were never registered under the Indian Act. White said it was a deliberate move made by the province to ignore them.
Since then denial has been perpetuated in the classroom and popular culture.
Conne River Chief Misel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation said most people think all the natives died out when the Beothuk Indigenous tribe of Newfoundland was driven to extinction in the early 1800s.
“I’ve had people say to me, ask me where I’m from and say, ‘geez, I thought we killed all you guys.’ And they were referring to the Beothuk people of course. As far as everyone was concerned there were no Mi’kmaq people on the island, and never was,” said Joe.
The chief recreated his ancestor’s ocean voyage to the mainland by Birchbark canoe. He has no doubt that Newfoundland was always part of traditional Mi’kmaq territory.
The Mi’kmaq always knew that they were here and have been fighting since the 1970s for the government to recognize them.
Elder Calvin White from No’Kmaq village, NL was at the forefront of the movement and recalls it as a resurgence of Mi’kmaq pride. But it’s surrounded by racism deeply steeped in Newfoundland culture.
“If we weren’t called savages, certainly they wouldn’t be kind enough to call us Mi’kmaq,” said White.
However, Qalipu Chief Brendan Mitchell said the open celebration of culture today is a sharp contrast to past generations.
“At Corner Brook Pulp and Paper where I spent most of my working career, Bowater before that, an Indian or Aboriginal person was not allowed to be employed there. My grandfather was pretty dark, he worked there for quite a long time and he retired at 65 years old. But he wasn’t allowed to tell anybody there who he was because he’d get fired. So, people weren’t out beating the drum and telling everybody they were Indian or Mi’kmaq” said Mitchell.
Chief Joe agrees it hasn’t been an easy fight. The only Mi’kmaq reserve in Newfoundland is his community of Conne River – and it played a big role in the movement.
“We said basically we want to go into the Indian Act for protection. Once we’re recognized, we’ve got some protection. Then we want to negotiate our way out,” said Joe.
Conne River gained status as an Indian band in the 1980s and was accepted into the Assembly of First Nations. No one today questions its legitimacy. But not at the time.
“Oh there was a lot of questions. Absolutely,” said Joe who feels that had they stayed under the Qalipu First Nation they’d probably be in the same boat the Qalipu is in now.
But what’s happening with the Mi’kmaq serves as an umbrella for other Mi’kmaq communities.
Today Conne River has control over education and has zero percent unemployment.
In the No’kmaq Village the band office bustles with activity while seeing zero dollars from the province or Indigenous Affairs.
The self-governed community is hanging on despite a lack of recognition and resources even while most people in the community hold Indian status.
Chief Liz Lasaga spends a hundred hours a week writing proposals for grant money.
“I cannot miss a single deadline for proposal writing because right now that’s the only revenue generation that we have in the community,” said Lasaga.
White said their community may be one of the only Aboriginal communities in Canada that has never received funds from the government.
The path to recognition didn’t unfold the way he envisioned in his younger days.
It remains a landless band with a messy enrollment process that’s raised questions about who can claim Mi’kmaq identity.
He said the government is repeating its denial of the Mi’kmaq’s existence like they did in 1949.
In part three APTN will look at the impacts that might unfold in Newfoundland and across the country.
What’s next for the Qalipu of Newfoundland and Labrador
APTN National News
Mi’kmaw leaders in Newfoundland say Indigenous people across the country should be watching as the controversial process for deciding membership in the Qalipu band unfolds.
The federal government is currently in the process of deciding who will maintain their status in the newly formed Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.
In 1949, the Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood infamously declared that there were no Indians on the island – by 2011, more than 100,000 people applied to become members of the Qalipu First Nation.
Qalipu member Brian Ford said getting back to his culture has made a difference.
“The culture’s been uplifting. It’s helped me. It’s made me who I am today. I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict for 28 years. So, the culture really saved my life to be honest,” said Ford.
But starting in 2013 more criteria was put in place by Ottawa to try and measure cultural identity.
See more stories here: Qalipu First Nation
The applications for membership were reviewed again.
“If you got your ancestry, you got your documents and everything all filled out and we proved who we are. Now they’re trying to prove who we’re not,” said Ford.
He, as well as many others, are waiting to learn if they can keep their Indian status. Those who can’t prove to have a Mi’kmaq community connection could lose their status.
“I really find that hard,” said Qalipu Chief Brendan Mitchell. “I have to say this: the government of Canada can say to a person five years ago, ‘congrats! You’re an Aboriginal person…oh sorry, give me your card back, you’re not an Indian anymore,’ or ‘you’re not a status Indian anymore’. I have a real big problem with that.”
Mitchell believes it was the cost of bringing 100,000 people into the Indian Act that motivated Canada to whittle down band membership.
“Maybe I should do this maybe I should generate a bill for everything that Aboriginal people, Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland never got since 1949 because we got nothing until the formation of the Qalipu First Nation,” he said.
There are few, including the Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland, that think all 103,000 people who applied should get in. Mitchell said more than three quarters could be denied.
The issue is with how the enrollment process ties identity to geography.
“You cannot discriminate against someone because they moved for education or work to build a better life for themselves,” said Dave Wells with the Mi’kmaq First Nations of Assembly of Newfoundland.
In order to be a Qalipu member, a person has to live in either a Mi’kmaq community in Newfoundland, show they visited attended a pow wow, took a picture and saved receipts.
“All other Indian bands in Canada have the ability to move from one community to another. Nothing makes sense. They cannot make the piece fit the puzzle and it’s time for the chief of the Qa’lipu First Nation to stand up along with the council and say to the feds, ‘we do not accept this!’” said Wells.
But Indigenous affairs minister Carolyn Bennett has made it clear to Chief Mitchell.
“The response back to me was very clear and she said it to me three times in the letter. ‘We have an agreement in place done in good faith with the federation of Newfoundland Indians and the Government of Canada and we’re standing by it,’” explained Mitchell.
He isn’t prepared to put the future of the Qalipu in jeopardy.
“People need to understand it’s not just an easy thing to walk away and tell Canada to take a hike,” said Wells.
Other Mi’kmaq leaders have been skeptical of the high numbers of people wanting into the Qalipu First Nation while wary of what it could mean for them.
“If you add 100,000 extra people or 50k people, what does that do to our education?” said Jamie Battiste with the Mi’kmaq Treaty Education. “What does that do to health? What does that do to all of the problems that currently exist that we’re underfunded on?”
The fate of deciding who’s who of the Qalipu is in the hands of the federal government and its decision could impact Indigenous people across Canada.
“How do you think they’re going to deal with the Daniel’s decision and six hundred thousand Metis and non-status Indians in Canada? Saying, ‘I want to be status?’ Guess what they’re going to do,” asked Mitchell.
Within the Qalipu, the battle over band membership may go on for a long while.
“It’s going to cause a lot of rift between siblings,” said Qalipu member Paul Pike. “How one is in and one is not. Because when we started this it was all about family. And the supplemental agreement is all about where you live and when you signed your application.”
Ford said it feels like they’re being robbed or discriminated against, but he’s not giving up.
“I plan to keep going. Carded or not carded it’s not going to change me. A piece of plastic does not define who I am. L’nu Neuptjej. I’m Mi’kmaq forever,” said Ford.
Anyone who is rejected from the Qalipu band can appeal. Once that route is exhausted the Mi’kmaq there said the legal battle will begin.