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There is anger and confusion among the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland who are reeling after news that friends and family have been rejected in the controversial process to decide membership of the Qalipu band.
“I’m not happy with what happened here,” said Qalipu Chief Brendan Mitchell. “We have a lot of people proud to have been part of this, proud to say I’m aboriginal, I’m Mi’kmaq and what have we done with
them? We’ve knocked them out of the process.”
Mitchell said the complicated criteria agreed on by the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) and Canada in 2013 has gone too far.
“We’re losing a lot of people who’ve been involved in this process for decades,” he said. “Families that have been around since the early days of the modern Aboriginal movement in Newfoundland.”
The Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland have lived without a reserve and outside the Indian Act since the province joined Canada in 1949.
Decades of fighting for recognition led to the formation of the Qalipu band in 2008.
By the membership deadline four years later, 104,000 people had applied to join, raising questions around legitimacy and concerns over the credibility of the band.
“So it wasn’t reasonable,” said Fred Caron, the federal government’s representative on the Qalipu file. “It overwhelmed the process in the sense that we had a four person enrolment committee, which
in the last year of the enrolment process, received 70,000 applications – and in the last 3 months, received 40 thousand.”
The enrolment committee is made up of both FNI members and representatives of the federal government.
“We didn’t prejudge whether people were serious or not when they fired in their application,” said Caron. “We think it was done right, done respectfully and done thoroughly.”
But Mitchell said the criteria meant to weed out people with little community connection, “just looking for free stuff” they might gain by having Indian status, has cut out Mi’kmaq who really belong in the band.
“I think that this process went too far,” said Mitchell. “I don’t think it needed to go as deep as it did. And I’ll be honest with you, I begged the minister not to do this.”
Mitchell said Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett’s only response to him so far has been a firm commitment to the process that was agreed on in 2013.
The letters from the enrolment committee were sent out on January 31 and the results have stunned people like Calvin White, a respected Mi’kmaw Elder.
“All that stuff, it looks like it had the deliberate intention of keeping people out,” said white. “It’s not about doing due diligence to people’s applications.”
White’s own three sons were denied because they moved away from their home in the Mi’kmaw community of Flat Bay, also called No’kmaq Village.
“I’m hurt, yes, and they’re hurt. But they’re not devastated,” said White. “We just don’t understand how anything could be so flawed.”
White was one of the key founders of the aboriginal movement in Newfoundland in the 1970s.
“When I got involved, my kids were small children running around,” said White. “They grew up seeing people like the Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Donald Marshall, Noel Knockwood, and Mi’sel Joe. They grew
up with an understanding and exposure to the lifestyle and politics, of Mi’kmaq culture.”
These pics feature Grand Chief Donald Marshall and respected Mi’kmaq traditional spiritual Elder Noel Knockwood who both spent time in Flat Bay, NL during the early years of the Aboriginal movement.
White called the results of the enrollment process “inconsistent.”
The enrollment process looks at self-identification. But also uses a point system to measure community connection and acceptance. Phone calls and visits home, plane tickets, and receipts tying the applicant
to one of the province’s 66 Mi’kmaq communities. The magic number to gain membership was 13.
White’s granddaughter lives five hours away in the Miawpukek Mi’kmaq First Nation at Conne River – the only reserve in Newfoundland.
“She got turned down,” said White. “Her daughter, five years old, got approved. In the letter with the point system, her mom got no points for visiting Flat Bay. But her daughter got two points. A five year-old
made it all the way to Flat Bay without her mom? It’s almost laughable!”
White is even more shocked at the rejection of people like Danny White, well-known and in demand for his skills as one of the last Mi’kmaq people to weave spruce root baskets.
“How can this man be assessed for not having a connection to culture and community? It’s utterly ridiculous,” said White.
And the list goes on.
“John Oliver, lives in British Columbia now, but he was the first president of Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI), involved for a number of years. He got a rejection letter. It’s unbelievable. It’s a mess.”
The Qalipu band currently has close to 24,000 members. These were people who were accepted into the band before everyone was assessed under the new criteria.
Now, more than 10,000 of those band members who were given Indian status haven’t made the cut this time around. Unless something changes, they’ll have their status cards revoked.
Wade White is among that number. He grew up in Flat Bay but lives in Halifax now.
“There’s no rhyme nor reason to what they’re doing. It seems like they’re picking and choosing,” said White. “It’s all based on geography versus bloodline.”
White has maintained a connection to his home community. He questions what moving away for work or education has to do with identity.
“If you live in one place you can’t be native,” said White. “Like, I must have fell asleep on the boat or airplane when they sucked my blood away because I don’t remember that. I’m native blood. I’ve
been native all my life. I have community acceptance. I have many people in the community that talk to me on a daily basis.”
But Fred Caron said the decisions of the enrolment committee are heavily tied to identity.
“But it’s also tied to the idea that you need this current substantial connection with the Mi’kmaq community that existed at 2008 and continued up until the recognition order,” said Caron.
And if people couldn’t prove that community connection, they didn’t make Qalipu’s founding members list, even if they were already on it.
As for revoking 10,544 status cards, Caron said, “It’s just not been done on this scale obviously but this is a one-off, this is a very unique process, we haven’t done this before in terms of creating a modern
Frustrations are mounting.
Wade White wants more transparency in the process. He has until March 17 to appeal the decision. Only 20,000 applicants have that right of appeal. But no one can add any new information. And White doesn’t know what was wrong with what he already sent in.
“This is a flawed process,” said White. “This has to stop. We need these applications reviewed.”
Calvin White, who’s related to Wade, agrees.
There’s talk of court action to fight the enrolment decisions – but White said that will take time and money and thinks the solution is a political one.
“The minister has the power to make a decision,” said White. “This has been such a mess. We have to look at some sort of correction. Do we need a new agreement? Maybe it’s just looking at the flaws of
the existing agreement.”
The pressure is on Chief Mitchell to stand up and fight the decision.
“Canada can say all they want to me, well, you’re a party to the agreement, you know you can’t say anything,” said Mitchell. “Well, you know, I have to speak up for our people.”
His plan is to meet with the community in a series of town halls over the next few weeks – and to lobby at the political level to try and grab the ear of Minister Bennett and Prime Minister Trudeau, who have
been silent on the Qalipu file so far.
“I have 14 months to try to help fix this situation we’re facing and it’s a discouraging tone,” said Mitchell. “It’s disappointing.”
In the spring of 2018, the final band list of the founding members of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation will be submitted to Minister Bennett for approval by an Order-in-Council.
After that, band membership will fall under the rules of the Indian Act.