Decision week for thousands of applicants to the Qalipu band
More than 100,000 applied to be band members
Thousands of Newfoundlanders are getting some important mail these days that's letting them know whether or not they'll be recognized as status Indians.
- Corner Brook protest seeks changes to Qalipu enrolment process
- Scrap Qalipu membership requirements, says Mi'kmaq association chair
Jan. 31 was the deadline for the enrolment committee for the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation to send out letters to approve or deny applications.
Julia Bennett of Toronto grew up in Stephenville, and said she never doubted she would get the letter of acceptance she received this week.
"My family's of First Nations origin, and there's evidence to demonstrate that. There's no doubt. My relations, they're from Woods Island and Flat Bay," she said.
"There's historic records that confirm that they're Indian."
But, even with Aboriginal ancestry, not everyone will be getting the same good news.
More than 100,000 people applied to be members of the off-reserve band in Newfoundland, with Indian status and medical and education benefits on the line.
Bennett was among a relatively small proportion of applicants who were already members of previous native groups, such as the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI).
"I was a historic member of the FNI and also the Indian Head First Nation so, at the time of the creation of the band, I was already a recognized member of the community," she said.
Some Mi'kmaq descendents knew only vaguely of their family's Aboriginal heritage, however, and never took steps to find out more, or become members of anything, until now. Some knew about their roots, but were told to hide them.
Pauline Tessier of Corner Brook said that's her situation, and she got a letter this week denying her application. It said she hadn't met the self-identification requirements for membership in Qalipu.
"I knew nothing about being of Mi'kmaq ancestry. It was kept very well-hidden from me and from my family. I was left in the dark for years," she said.
Tessier said it was a different era, when there were no prohibitions against discrimination in the workplace. She heard stories of a relative who, years ago, lost his job at the paper mill in Corner Brook "to a white man."
"I suspect that probably was the reason why my father never talked about it to us. And neither did his family."
Suppressed culture no excuse
Tessier said the fact that her culture was suppressed shouldn't now be used as an excuse for not granting her status.
"I don't understand how that could be held against me, or my family, or any of my father's family members. If you don't know, you don't know. It's what you do after you find that is important," she said.
I've done everything I can possibly do to recognize and to be accepted in our culture.- Pauline Tessier
Tessier said as soon as she found out about her native roots, she publicly identified as Mi'kmaq, joined Mi'kmaq groups, travelled to reserves in Nova Scotia, attended powwows, and even spoke before a Senate committee in Ottawa.
"I've done everything I can possibly do to recognize and to be accepted in our culture."
Now, it turns out, under the Qalipu supplemental agreement, the things that will determine membership include your prior association with native groups, what community you lived in, and your involvement in Aboriginal cultural activities.
That means that many Newfoundlanders who moved away for work and didn't maintain strong ties back home do not qualify, even if they share the same lineage as approved Qalipu members.
Julia Bennett, who received an acceptance letter, has already heard of one example that hits home.
"Yesterday, I learned that my first cousin, who shares the same Indian ancestry as me, he didn't qualify. And that's just because he's been away from the island and he's been working with Canada's military, and not in his home community."
A 'serious situation'
Chief Brendan Mitchell told CBC News he's getting a lot of calls from people who've been turned down for Qalipu.
Mitchell said he will know more as he receives information from Aboriginal Affairs in the coming days.
In the meantime, he calls it a "serious situation," and said he'll lobby on behalf of disappointed applicants, especially those who had status and benefits but are losing them as a result of the letters they're getting now.
Some applicants have been told they can appeal. Others are being told this is the end of the line, with no possibility of appeal.
There's talk already about launching a court challenge, most notably from an organized group called the Mi'kmaq First Nations Assembly of Newfoundland (MFNAN).
But Qalipu member Julia Bennett has some words for all who seek recognition from Ottawa:
"It's important to remember that federal Indian status is really just a legal construct of the Crown so, for those who didn't qualify, not having Indian status doesn't mean you're not First Nations."