Elder Ken “Mutchie” Bennett fears his Mi’kmaq culture will disappear with his generation, as thousands of fellow band members are expected to have their Indian status revoked this spring.
Bennett, along with about 40 members and supporters of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation in Newfoundland, were in Ottawa Saturday protesting a controversial federal government agreement.
A total of 10,512 founding band members are expected to lose status this spring, after an Order in Council determines the final list of members.
Bennett was one of the lucky 13,365 founding members who will keep his status. His wife, children and grandchildren were rejected from band.
“It hits home when my daughter calls me up from New Brunswick and says, ‘Dad, our bloodline or our recognition … ends with your generation. It ends with you.’ It was very hurtful,” he said.
When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, the province’s Indigenous people weren’t recognized under the Indian Act. It wasn’t until 2008 when the Canadian government signed an agreement with the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI), allowing First Nations to apply for founding membership of the Qalipu band.
A total of 27,000 applications were received and 23,877 were deemed eligible as founding members. Then, a flood of applications rolled in. By 2012, the government had 104,000 applications to sift through.
In 2013, the government and FNI announced a supplemental agreement, clarifying the band enrolment rules. They decided to review all applications, including those already received and accepted. Apart from the original 10,512 founding band members, a further 68,134 applicants were rejected from the pool.
It’s a process that has divided families and left many feeling displaced.
Those who applied for status had to meet a set of criteria, including whether they lived in Newfoundland, participated in Mi’kmaq cultural events or ceremonies or, if they moved away from province, whether they came home for visits or stayed in touch with band members.
Those who moved away from home may no longer qualify for band membership. Bennett said it’s confusing why he, a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces who spent 28 years moving around the country, would be eligible.
“How I retained mine, I’m really not sure,” he said. “I’m grateful, but I’m unhappy that any of our brothers and sisters lost their recognition. They didn’t lose their identity. They still are who they were born to be. But they lost their identity as a status Indigenous person in Canada.”
Jim DuHart, who organized the Ottawa protest, held up his status card before the crowd. Originally from Corner Brook, he’s one of 13 people in his family.
“Three in, everybody out including me,” he said.
Chief Brendan Mitchell said it’s unfair for Qalipu identity to be tied to geography. Newfoundland’s high unemployment rate forces many band members to move out of province for work, he said.
“Our people all over the country are being impacted by what’s happening,” he said. “They’re upset. They’re hurting. They feel that they’ve been displaced. They feel sadness in their hearts over what happened.”
The supplemental agreement was signed pre-Trudeau, but Mitchell said it’s time for the current government to step in. Otherwise, he said, there could be lawsuits following the finalized spring band list.
“We talk about truth and reconciliation and the main topics for us include residential schools, for example, missing and murdered women, 60s scoop, sterilization,” he said. “Well, this country’s going to have to add Qalipu First Nation to that situation regarding truth and reconciliation.”
A spokesperson from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada said the government has no plans to amend Bill C-25, the act respecting the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band Order.
“To date, more than 18,000 individuals have been accepted as Founding Members of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation – making it the second largest First Nation by population in Canada.”
Qalipu membership by the numbers (from the Government of Canada website):
– 13,365 applicants who are on the current Founding Members list will remain eligible for founding membership
– 10,512 applicants who are on the current Founding Members list were found by the joint Enrolment Committee to not meet the criteria under the 2013 Supplemental Agreement for Founding Membership (These individuals will retain their membership until the amendment of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band Order, expected in the spring of 2018. They are entitled to appeal their decision, the results of which may increase the Founding Members List. Some of those who are no longer eligible for founding membership may still be able to register for membership as a descendant of a Founding Member.)
– 4,679 applicants who were not Founding Members will now be eligible for founding membership (They will gain membership once the amendment of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band Order is confirmed through an Order in Council in the spring of 2018.)
– 68,134 applicants were not Founding Members and will not be eligible for founding membership
– 3,984 applicants have invalid applications and are therefore not eligible for founding membership