For Canada’s newest First Nation, a declaration of – and fight over – identity

For Canada’s newest First Nation, a declaration of – and fight over – identity

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

Elder Calvin White has been fighting for recognition of Mi’kmaw rights for his entire life, but now that Qalipu First Nation is celebrating 10 years of existence, he worries the original struggle has veered off course.

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September 22, 2021

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Calvin White spent his adulthood fighting for recognition of his people, the Mi’kmaw community of Newfoundland. Beginning in the 1970s, he traveled across the province organizing residents into what would later become the Federation of Newfoundland Indians. And he challenged legislation before the courts that led to the creation of the Qalipu First Nation in 2011.

This week it marks its 10th anniversary. But Mr. White says the struggle for justice is more pressing than ever.

Why We Wrote This

The recognition of the Qalipu First Nation was a major achievement for Newfoundland’s Indigenous people. But as Mi’kmaw elder Calvin White observes, success brought new questions about identity.

While recognition was a crowning achievement, the creation of the nation has also been mired in controversy over membership, surfacing divisive debates about identity that have split families. And looking back at the long road to recognition, Mr. White is concerned the movement has veered from its original struggle for inclusion and equity.

“I’m more engaged now in the fight than I was in the ’70s,” he says. “After 10 years, I’ve realized that the fight has gotten bigger. It’s absolutely necessary to reflect back on where we are and try to correct some of the injustices and the wrongs that we’re now faced with, not in our struggle with the federal government, but our own struggle in Qalipu.”

Flat Bay, Newfoundland

When Newfoundland leader Joey Smallwood declared that there were “no Indians” in the province in 1949, Calvin White was very much evidence to the contrary.

He was 7 years old at the time, living in his isolated Mi’kmaw community on the southwest coast of Newfoundland. He snared rabbits with his grandfather. He fished for cod, lobster, salmon, and halibut. He learned to harvest seals and hunt moose, and above all that whatever they got was shared between all.

Mr. Smallwood’s words were incongruous with the experience of any Indigenous person in Newfoundland at the time. But as Mr. White grew, exposing their falsity became his life’s purpose, and he spent his adulthood fighting for recognition of his people. Beginning in the 1970s, he traveled across the province organizing residents into what would later become the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI). And he challenged legislation before the courts that led to the creation of the Qalipu First Nation in 2011.

Why We Wrote This

The recognition of the Qalipu First Nation was a major achievement for Newfoundland’s Indigenous people. But as Mi’kmaw elder Calvin White observes, success brought new questions about identity.

Meaning “caribou” in the Mi’kmaw language, Qalipu is the newest band to receive federal recognition in Canada. This week it marks its 10th anniversary, with celebrations to take place across Newfoundland.

But on a recent day at his home in Flat Bay, Mr. White, who was appointed to the Order of Canada for his advocacy, says the struggle for justice is more pressing than ever. While recognition was a crowning achievement, the creation of the nation has also been mired in controversy over membership, surfacing divisive debates about identity that have split families. And looking back at the long road to recognition, Mr. White is concerned the movement has veered from its original struggle for inclusion and equity.

“I’m more engaged now in the fight than I was in the ’70s,” he says. “After 10 years, I’ve realized that the fight has gotten bigger. It’s absolutely necessary to reflect back on where we are and try to correct some of the injustices and the wrongs that we’re now faced with, not in our struggle with the federal government, but our own struggle in Qalipu.”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

A view of Flat Bay, Newfoundland, where elder Calvin White has been fighting for recognition of Mi’kmaw rights for his entire life.

A province’s denial of its peoples

Premier Smallwood’s denial of indigeneity on the island of Newfoundland has had ramifications felt legally, politically, and culturally through to the present. Immediately it meant that Indigenous people of Newfoundland were not recognized under Canada’s Indian Act, excluding them from federal rights and benefits. In popular understanding, it made them invisible. It suggested that the Indigenous history stopped at the Beothuk, who were declared extinct in the 1800s – though that is contested today.

“The myth of extinction, this idea that when the Beothuk went extinct that there were no Indigenous people left in the province … was a sentiment that was held by a lot of people within settler colonial society,” says Katherine Morton, instructor in anti-colonial and Indigenous studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “So Indigenous identities were often concealed. Families were in a position where in order to be safe, they had to remove parts of their Indigenous ancestry from their family stories. … When Newfoundland entered into the country of Canada with the Indian Act never being extended, there was this enormous impact that we’re still feeling ripples of.”


Can there be a winner in the school culture wars?

Mr. White was among those determined to set the record straight. But first, he had to grapple with changes in his own community. The province was modernized when it joined Canada in 1949 – the last to do so – with new roads, jobs, and rules. Regulations around hunting and fishing had irreversible effects on traditional ways of living. It thrust families into social despair, compounded in Flat Bay by the presence of a nearby American air base that brought a corruptive force, he says.

The eldest of eight, Mr. White adapted to these changes initially. He quit school at 14 to work for a paper mill with his father, the two setting up camp in the woods. At first the job gave them the flexibility to hunt or snare between logging. But when the industry was mechanized, bringing rigid work schedules and hourly pay, he went back to school, finishing eighth grade and becoming a heavy machine operator.

That was an awakening. Away from his community for the first time, working at a hydroelectric plant in Labrador, he bore witness to the kind of discrimination that would fuel his lifelong fight. “The racism was brutal for absolutely no reason whatsoever, just because of who you were and the color of your skin.”

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

The annual powwow in Flat Bay, Newfoundland, which attracts around 5,000 people a year to these powwow grounds, is organized by Bay St. George Mi’kmaq Cultural Revival Committee, which Calvin White helped establish. Its intent is to fortify cultural heritage, especially for children who have moved away from Newfoundland for jobs in other provinces.

Community found and community lost

At the time, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had proposed abolishing the Indian Act with the “1969 White Paper.” Though he ended up withdrawing his proposal, it galvanized Indigenous activism across the country and set a new path for Mr. White. He became a leader in the FNI and fought for status for the Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland.

That culminated in the creation of Qalipu First Nation as a “band” under the Indian Act on Sept. 22, 2011.

Qalipu is unique because the band is “landless,” with no land claims to settle as part of its recognition, nor territory as a limit to membership. About 10,000 had been members of the FNI, and when the new band was created, 23,877 of its members were registered as founding. But then it received 70,000 additional applications – bringing the total to equivalent of one-fifth the population of the province. Overwhelmed, Canada and the FNI announced a new agreement in 2013 to clarify enrollment, kicking off a messy process to determine who is really Mi’kmaq.

Ten years later, on one hand the Qalipu First Nation anniversary marks a clear story of revival. Mildred Lavers, from the Great Northern Peninsula, knew she was Indigenous as a young girl, but it wasn’t something the family necessarily celebrated. For her, forging an Indigenous identity was almost like finding the missing piece of a puzzle. “I’d always been drawn to the natural way of life, the Indigenous way of life, to nature and being outside,” she says. “I think that put it all together for me. This is why I am this way.”

After she received status in 2013, she helped form a women’s group on the northern peninsula that focuses on cultural learning, from drumming courses to workshops on medicinal plants. She also started and is chief of a new band – one that doesn’t have federal recognition – called the Northern Peninsula (Mekap’sk) Mi’kmaq Band.

But the review process has cast a shadow. Membership is based on a points system, reducing identity to a transaction. Points are amassed depending on a specific formula, including where residents live or even how many times they’ve shopped in what was deemed a Mi’kmaw community. That meant those who may have grown up with strong Indigenous teachings but moved away for work – like so many, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in this province – had their status taken away.

In the end, thousands have lost their membership. The case is in litigation. In the meantime it has split families apart. Ms. Lavers, for example, received points because she had joined a band several years ago and maintained her status after the review. But her two siblings lost theirs. “It’s been a very difficult process,” she says.

Frank Skeard, an elected councilor of Qalipu for Glenwood Ward in central Newfoundland, says that the membership controversy shouldn’t overshadow their successes. To go from “no Indians” in Newfoundland to more than 100,000 who want “in” is a sign of success. “A lot of people look at the enrollment issues as a bad thing. I look at it as a fantastic thing because Qalipu brought being Indigenous to the forefront, something people want to be,” he says.

“Where were those people for 40 years?”

But to Mr. White, who was also the former chief of the Flat Bay band, the very people he fought for inclusion are reliving a cycle of exclusion, while the powerful have found opportunity in a new bureaucracy.

“Everyone and their dog wants to be a Native person now,” says Mr. White. “I’m not going to suggest that all of those people are not Indian people. But I am going to tell you quite honestly, where were those people for 40 years when we were organizing their neighbors living across the street from them? They weren’t Indian, and they didn’t want to be Indian.”

His criticism has grown louder over the years; he stepped down from the board of the FNI before Qalipu was formed. Today his band, Flat Bay, has been moving toward a process in which they could break from Qalipu and fight for their own official recognition.

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But in some ways he has come to realize recognition itself is not the end of the fight. Maybe it’s not even the most important part.

He says Mi’kmaw culture is one of care for others, where community comes before the individual. “A lot of them don’t understand that they have the same responsibility to a child down the road … who has experienced social destruction … as they have to their own children,” he says. “Our vision was to inspire and promote and mentor from the grassroots up. It wasn’t about the elite becoming more powerful. Qalipu has done some really good things. But it has lost sight of the people that are most in need.”

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