APTN National News
Over the next 10 days or so, nearly 100,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador will receive a letter from the federal government stating whether they have been accepted, or rejected as a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation band.
The letters were mailed out Tuesday.
Paul Pike of the Qalipu band is waiting to find out whether he has status under the Indian Act.
“For those of us here that I believe that practice their traditions, whether we have status or not it’s not going to make a difference in that aspect,” he said. “We’re still going to do what we do…I’m on the chopping block so to speak. I was living away in Alaska for 25 years. I came home every year and I maintained contact. So, I think I did my very best to submit everything I could that they were asking.”
St. George’s Mi’kmaq band member Kelly Anne Butler said the wait is bothering her.
“I’m extremely active in the community and have been for some time. My life isn’t going to change but it will still matter to me that the government doesn’t recognize me,” she said.
It all started in 2008 when Canada signed an agreement with the Mi’kmaq. At the time, the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI) boasted around 10,000 members.
In 2011, the Qalipu band was formed and its membership jumped to 24,000, with another 75,000 people from across the country waiting to join.
“But what happened with Qualipu, we gave people a reason in 2011, we’re not ashamed anymore,” said Qalipu Chief Brendan Mitchell. “We’re proud of who we are as a people, as a nation…and that’s the big difference. There were 103,000 people that came out, we only have 500,00 people in Newfoundland.”
For the Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland, it’s been a time of cultural revival and pride.
But the big number of people coming forward grabbed headlines while raising eyebrows and questions.
“Many people, even our own members say to me, ‘where in the hell did 103,000 people come from?’ That situation, truthfully, is what prompted Canada and the FNI back in the day and got leadership to do something about the situation,” said Mitchell.
The band’s former chief and council signed a supplemental agreement with Canada in 2013 adding more criteria to decide who can be part of the band.
“The supplementary agreement was a top-down document driven down to get rid of the vast numbers of people that were applying for status under the Indian Act,” said Dave Wells, chair of the board of directors for the Mi’kmaq First Nations Assembly of Newfoundland.
He said that the effort to narrow the numbers down has created a whole other set of problems. There are rumours that tens of thousands of people will be denied.
“I know a family in Corner Brook,” said Wells. “Twins. Same biological parents. One has a status card, one lives in Ontario, doesn’t have a card. Is that reason to disqualify the one in Ontario?”
Although Qalipu is a landless band, geography has become key to deciding who’s in or out.
“The people that are in jeopardy of losing status aren’t people who live here in our community. They’re people who live outside,” said Mitchell.
Whether you live in Newfoundland or not, if you’re outside a Mi’kmaq community a point system will decide your identity.
Todd Lasaga’s career brought him to Nova Scotia. He is originally from the Mi’kmaq community of Flat Bay in Newfoundland.
“All this paperwork … shows what I had to do to prove who I was as a status person. It’s my birthright. I shouldn’t have to do this,” said Lasaga.
With ancestry, self-identification and community connection, everything comes down to points. If the intention of the point system is to weed out the wannabes, Lasaga said the brush strokes are too broad.
“But it’s not just about going to Newfoundland to be Aboriginal. There’s a lot of stuff here in Nova Scotia that I get out and go to. Different pow wows, different events,” he said.
Many there trace the confusion of the Mi’kmaq back to 1949 when then-premier Joey Smallwood denied there were Indians in Newfoundland.
That denial and discrimination is key to understanding who the Qalipu are today.
“I’ve had some experiences where I was totally accepted until I said the word Qalipu. And then all of a sudden the way people spoke to me really changed. Indigenous people. I can’t fault them. The way it’s been portrayed in the news has not been positive,” said Butler.
Look for part two in the series by Trina Roache who will look at the history of Mi’kmaq living on the rock outside of the Indian Act.