(A low winter sun burns over the pow wow grounds of the Miawpukek First Nation at Conne River in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Photo: Trina Roache/APTN)
APTN National News
The chief of the lone Mi’kmaw reserve in Newfoundland says an influx of band members to the Qalipu First Nation would be an economic boom for the province.
Saqamaw Mi’sel Joe, Chief of the Miawpukek First Nation at Conne River, points to his own community which gained status as an Indian Act band in 1987.
“Look at Conne River and the amount of money that comes into this community,” said Joe. “It doesn’t stay here. It goes out to the surrounding areas.”
Despite its isolated location along the south coast of Newfoundland, the Miawpukek First Nation has thrived.
Around 800 people live on the reserve, with over 2, 000 people living away. The Mi’kmaw community runs successful businesses, a commercial fishery and boasts zero unemployment through maintaining full-time and seasonal positions. The band has control over education and is on the path to self-government.
In 2011, Newfoundland’s newest band, the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, drew over 100,000 applications. The deadline for enrollment was January 31. People will find out in the next several days if they’ve been accepted as band members.
The high numbers of people claiming Mi’kmaq ancestry have raised eyebrows and concerns. But Joe sees it as a positive, whether the band ends up with 20,000 or 100,000 members.
“The economy will blossom because of that. Those are dollars that are coming into the province that they never had before,” said Joe. “Now most people don’t see that. They just look at the racism part of it. They don’t see what it can do for Newfoundland, they don’t see what it can do for business.”
Qalipu’s former Chief and Council signed a supplemental agreement with Canada is 2013. It added more criteria to the enrollment process, adding controversy to the question – who are the Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland?
All the applications were reviewed, this time applying a complicated 13 point system for people who don’t live in one of Newfoundland’s 66 Mi’kmaq communities, which is the majority of the applicants.
Whether someone lives in Saint John’s or Toronto, they have to prove a community connection; pictures from a powwow, previous membership in the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, receipts from when they bought gas in a Mi’kmaq community, a plane ticket home.
“It’s ridiculous. That’s nothing to do with identity,” said Dave Wells, Chair of the Board of Directors for the Mi’kmaq First Nations Assembly of Newfoundland. “This whole document – Bill C-25 – the supplemental agreement, was a top down document driven down to get rid of the vast numbers of people.”
Wells predicts most people who live away will be denied band membership and status.
Qalipu Chief Brendan Mitchell said whittling down band membership is a cost-saving measure by the Government of Canada.
“Maybe I should do this,” said Mitchell. “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.”
When Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, its new Premier Joey Smallwood said there were no Indians living there, despite Mi’kmaq identifying on the 1945 census. It meant those Mi’kmaq were never recognized under the Indian Act.
“It was a good thing and a bad thing all in one,” said Joe. “It allowed us to grow as aboriginal people here without the influence of government, without funding coming in this community that we can use for welfare or social services. We had to look after ourselves, we went out to work we still hunted and trapped we lived off the land right up until the 70s.”
On the other hand, Conne River had no running water. Many people lived in shacks. Joe argued that the federal government had a fiduciary responsibility to Aboriginal people in Canada and the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland had been excluded.
“We wanted to move forward,” said Joe. “I think the Government of Newfoundland and Canada should go back and look at 1949 discussion and say there was a wrong that was done and they owe us something for that.”
Conne River had been a key part of the aboriginal movement in the 1970s, a central player in the Federation of Newfoundland Indians.
“It was no easy fight. There was still a lot of prejudice, racism,” said Joe.
But by the 1980’s, Conne River broke away from the organization to find its own path into the Indian Act.
“You have to deal with us we’re and we’re not going away,” said Joe. “We’ve been here forever. We’re not looking for nothing that don’t belong to us.”
In 1983, Joe and over 30 others from Conne River locked themselves in politician Joe Goudie’s office to force the provincial government to release over $800,000 in funds. Police broke up the protests and made arrests. The Mi’kmaq countered with a hunger strike.
Joe recalls a conversation with a reporter at the time. “Are you telling me that you’re hungry in Conne River? I said yeah, but not for food. We’re hungry for justice.”
Conne River finally did gain recognition and became an Indian Act band in 1987.
“We said basically we want to go into the Indian Act for protection,” said Joe. “Once we’re recognized, we’ve got some protection. Then we want to negotiate our way out.”
Today, Saqamaw Mi’sel Joe is a respected Mi’kmaw Chief, leading a successful band towards self-government. He’s paying close attention to what’s happening with the Qalipu First Nation, formerly known as the Federation of Newfoundland Indians.
“I think if we had stayed with the federation, we’d probably be in the same boat,” said Joe.
Qalipu – a landless band with an enrollment process that’s going to see many of its members denied Indian status.
There’s no breakdown to date how many people have been rejected or accepted yet. Joe insists, high numbers of people claiming Mi’kmaq identity are nothing to be afraid of.
“I always go back to 1949,” said Joe. “If recognition had taken place in 1949 and it happened right across the island who knows what the numbers could’ve been. It could even be higher than 120,000.”
He adds that questions of legitimacy around Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland and Labrador reflect a need for greater education.
“The Canadian Indians were brought over by the French to kill the Beothuk people; that was taught in school. There was a small little paragraph. Nothing about us as a people except for that,” said Joe, “that there’s no Indians, they’re all gone, the last group that was here was Beothuk people.”
In 1999, Joe recreated the ocean voyage from Newfoundland to Unama’ki (Cape Breton) to prove that his ancestors were capable of having made the journey centuries before, independent of European settler, thereby extending Mi’kmaq territory to include Newfoundland.
Joe points out the Mi’kmaq have a long history of exploring, and disagrees with the enrollment criteria for the Qalipu that ties identity to geography.
“You’re a Mi’kmaw, you’re a Mi’kmaw, you’re a Mi’kmaw,” said Joe. “No matter where you lived. Or wherever you go.”