The controversial application process for the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation is starting over after a supplemental agreement with Ottawa was announced on Thursday.
When the process started in 2008, aboriginal leaders expected about 10,000 people to apply for band membership. However, when the application process ended in November 2012, roughly 103,000 applications were sent in.
Brendan Sheppard, chief of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation, says the criteria under the supplemental agreement have not changed.
"Clarification is the key — and that will take care of itself in the enrolment process," Sheppard said.
"There is no change to the criteria for those individuals who applied in the second phase and, to make it fair and equitable, all applications that have been submitted since the process began in 2008 right up until November 2012 — those applications in the first phase will be reassessed."
According to Sheppard, people will be given an opportunity to provide additional information once the process starts.
The reassessment will also include the 23,000 people who have already received their membership cards. Sheppard said they will continue to receive their benefits and retain their membership until they hear otherwise.
Members can also keep any benefits they've received to date.
Sheppard said the number of applications they received came as a shock to him.
"It was disheartening, in a sense, to see such a huge number come forward in the last year of the application process," he said.
"I guess maybe it might have just tossed around in people's minds, 'Well, here's a benefit I'm losing out on — I believe I may be of Mi’kmaq descent,' and I guess all the research began."
Sheppard said he's even heard from an applicant who later found out his heritage was European, and wanted to remove his name from the process.
Also, 70 per cent of all applicants do not live in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"We're going back to make sure that all those people who said that they have a connection to Newfoundland can, in fact, provide evidence that they did come to Newfoundland, whether it be airline tickets, Marine Atlantic, etc., or they attended certain aboriginal functions, traditional gatherings or cultural events," Sheppard said.
O'Leary backs review
Sheilagh O'Leary, a St. John's councillor and member of the band through her mother's Mi'kmaq heritage, said she welcomes the review process.
"I don't think it's unwarranted, certainly, because I know that there has been a lot of controversy about the numbers that have come in of people who are interested in applying," she said.
"There needs to be tightening up and clarification about who is actually eligible for it, so I do think it is merited.
"This is a process that's been long overdue. That's the reality of it. And I think probably with clearer guidelines right from the get go, I think probably a lot of this could've been avoided," OLeary said.
"The reality of being recognized as a Qalipu band member is about cultural heritage — it's about who we are as people and where we come from."
O'Leary, like many in the band, grew up hundreds of kilometres away from any Mi'kmaq community.
She said she hopes the tightening of the guidelines won't discourage eligible members from applying.
Watchdog concerned about representation
Hector Pearce, of the Mi'kmaq First Nations Assembly of Newfoundland (formerly known as Qalipu Watchdogs), said the tightening down on the criteria will mean thousands of people will not be given representation they are entitled to.
"This is going to drastically reduce membership into the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nations band," Pearce said.
"And you're going to end up with still a lot of people not getting the recognition that they deserve."
Pearce is part of a group that is lobbying for band member status.
Applications not already rejected will be assessed, or reassessed, by August 31, 2015. Appeals will be dealt with by March 31, 2016.