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The Mi'kmaq of Newfoundland and Labrador move
from suppression to celebration
CBC Newfoundland and Labrador | Mar. 16, 2007
Mar. 12, 2007:
D.J. Williams is only 10, but he already knows far more about the Mi'kmaq culture than either his mother or grandmother did at that age.
"That's what we are: we're Mi'kmaq people, we should respect our culture," D.J. says with a confidence that his grandmother, Pam Williams, finds refreshing.
She remembers things being very different when she was young. Her generation and the one that followed grew up scarcely aware of a heritage that was at risk of slipping away altogether from thousands of families that now identify as Mi'kmaq.
"If you said, 'I am an Indian,' well then, you were considered the dirty Indian. I [saw] guys get in fights and get beat up, just because they acknowledged the fact that they were native," said Williams.
The Williams household is in a process of self-discovery that is mirrored in hundreds of others in Newfoundland and Labrador as Mi'kmaq roots that were once hidden are now celebrated openly.
The 2001 census counted about 7,000 individuals in the province who identified as Mi'kmaq. The combined membership lists of Mi'kmaq bands, however, are now more than double that amount.
There is only one Mi'kmaq reserve in the province, in Conne River on Newfoundland's south coast. The vast majority of the province's Mi'kmaq live elsewhere.
And so the Mi'kmaq revival has also spurred a serious and divisive debate about the future — especially over the issue of whether to pursue land claims.
Mar. 13, 2007:
Revival of drumming, sweat lodges
A powwow in Flat Bay in 2006 has been regarded as a turning point in Mi'kmaq communities.
And for many Mi'kmaq, reclaiming the culture has been an exhilarating experience.
As a child, Pam Williams knew little about drumming, sweat lodges and sacred fires — rites and rituals that are being now revived in communities with a strong Mi'kmaq presence, primarily in western Newfoundland.
She is delighted that her grandson can tap many more resources to discover his cultural heritage.
"He can realize, 'Well, OK, when I get confused, there's people out there I can talk to now,'" she said.
"Where a lot of us, growing up, had our parents, yes, but half the time, they didn't know why we were so confused."
"There's a generation that was kind of lost," said Jeremy Simon, who lives in Port au Port East, one of the west coast communities where many residents share aboriginal and French heritage.
Simon and wife Candace married in the summer of 2006, in the first traditional Mi'kmaq wedding to take place outside Conne River in modern times.
Both in their late 20s, the Simons grew up aware of their heritage, but also cognizant that older generations were ashamed of being Mi'kmaq.
"It was kind of looked down upon, and people hid it somewhat. They weren't proud of their heritage," Simon said.
Mar. 14, 2007:
Divided over land issues
For decades, Mi'kmaq who do not live on the Conne River reserve have been lobbying for some sort of federal recognition — so far without success.
Among them is Calvin White, the chief of the Flat Bay Indian Band, which has been trying to get Ottawa's recognition as a First Nation — which would give its members status under the federal Indian Act.
"As an individual, I have absolutely no doubt who I am," said White. "But legally, in a court of law and in the eyes of people who do not understand where I am coming from, I am still not an Indian."
Since 2002, White and other Mi'kmaq leaders have been lobbying for what's called a landless band, which would effectively give its members status under the federal Indian Act, but without requiring them to relocate.
The proposal would also recognize that members live across a broad area, from Gander in central Newfoundland to Flat Bay, on the west coast.
Leaders say the status would recognize the fact that many of their members have formed strong ties in their respective communities.
'I've chosen to live here'
Rhonda White, who lives in Flat Bay, says status would mean more help and better services for her daughter, Naomi.
"I've chosen to live here," she said. "I wouldn't want to relocate somewhere else simply because it's something that the government wants us to do because it's easier to manage the numbers."
Many Mi'kmaq, though, staunchly oppose to the landless reserve proposal. Indeed, splinter groups have formed, with some people arguing that a land claim is an essential part of any deal with Ottawa.
"To accept a landless band agreement really robs the Mi'kmaq people of equality with not only Conne River but all First Nations people who live on reserves throughout Canada," said Bert Alexander, the chief of the K'tmaqakuk Mi'kmaq Alliance.
Alexander formed the alliance to oppose the proposal for a landless reserve.
Regardless of the divisions over how Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland and Labrador should organize, there is a strengthening resolve to protect their culture — and to make their presence known in the broader community.
For Pam Williams, the large powwow in Flat Bay in 2006 was far more than a social gathering.
"It meant that people in this area were finally embracing their culture, which was great, because for so long it was shoved under the table."
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Topic: The Mi'kmaq of the West Coast: What is their vision and how do they get there?
Listen - Mar. 16, 2007:
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