There's nothing to prove it, but Mi'kmaw mercenary myth persists, say researchers

When school textbooks told us something terrible and untrue about an Indigenous group, how were children supposed to know the difference? One Mi'kmaw researcher says the province needs to correct the colonial history many of us were taught in school.

Mi'kmaw researchers want to correct colonial history taught for decades in N.L. schools

These two textbooks were written for use in N.L. elementary schools. The story of Indigenous peoples is told from a colonial perspective. (Corey Sharpe/Bernice Hillier)

A claim that the Mi'kmaq are not Indigenous to Newfoundland but were brought to the island by the French to kill off the Beothuk was taught as fact to schoolchildren in the province for decades, but with no historical evidence backing it up, Mi'kmaq today are calling for more to be done to dispel the still commonly held belief.

N.L. elementary school textbooks from the 1950s and 1960s included the so-called "mercenary myth" as fact, and Ivan J. White, a Mi'kmaw man from Flat Bay, recalls learning the colonized version of history even in the mid-1990s.

"That is a terrible thing to say a people did," White told CBC News in a recent interview. "I found that very offensive to me as a person, because I knew who I was."

White said it was only in recent weeks that he realized the full impact of the mercenary myth being taught in schools, when during discussion about the renaming of Red Indian Lake, people were recalling what they'd learned from textbooks many years ago, and repeating it as fact.

Jerry Wetzel wrote his master's thesis about the Mi'kmaw mercenary myth in 1995 at Dalhousie University. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

Learned it by the book

Two textbooks published in the 1960s — The Story of Newfoundland and Labrador by Frances Briffett and Newfoundland and Labrador: A Brief History by Leslie Harris — describe Mi'kmaq as allies with the French and assert that they killed Beothuk, but neither of the authors appear to have attributed those details to any historical documents or other sources.

Briffett wrote, "The French brought in their allies, the Micmacs, from Nova Scotia. In the Micmacs, the Beothucks found a deadly enemy.… The Micmacs visited Beothuck camps and lost no chances to murder Beothuck hunters."

Harris, meanwhile, made little mention of the Mi'kmaq, but a line from a caption for a drawing states: "When [Sir Hugh] Palliser tried to befriend the [Beothuck], many of them had already been killed by the settlers and the Micmac Indians."

No proof

The lack of attribution is unsurprising to Kelly Anne Butler, a Mi'kmaw woman and Indigenous education specialist at Memorial University, who says researchers have tried for decades and failed to find any evidence that the account is accurate.

"When you go through in detail, through old French documents, you would, if there was any sort of a plan or an action that was doing this on the part of the French, you would find something," she said. "You'd find some piece of paper, some document, some statement somewhere, and there's nothing."

Indigenous researcher and lawyer Jerry Wetzel is one of those who's looked for evidence, and found none.

He wrote his master's thesis about the Mi'kmaw mercenary myth in 1995 at Dalhousie University.

"The whole story about the French bringing Mi'kmaq to Newfoundland is completely untrue and unsubstantiated," he said.

"It came, actually originated from [John] Peyton, who was one of the chief Beothuk killers, and he was just covering his own tracks."

A caption under a drawing in "Newfoundland and Labrador, A Brief History," published in 1968, boldly declared that Beothuk had been killed by "the settlers and the Micmac Indians." (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

A convenient untruth

Butler and Wetzel agree that blaming the Mi'kmaq was convenient for early English settlers for two reasons: it discredited the Mi'kmaq as original inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland, and it placed most of the blame on the Mi'kmaq for the extermination of Beothuk.

"You simultaneously are saying that the Mi'kmaq came quite late to the island and at the same time saying also that they came with these terrible intentions toward our beloved Beothuk who are no longer with us," said Butler.

Ivan J. White is a Mi'kmaw man who grew up in Flat Bay and attended high school in St. George's. (Ivan J. White)

Damage done

Wetzel said the damage done by textbooks that taught the mercenary myth cannot be underestimated. He said he's spoken with earlier generations of Mi'kmaq who had no choice but to learn it in school.

In many cases, said Wetzel, people dealt with their embarrassment by denying their ancestry, language, and culture.

"My experience was that it made them very ashamed of being Mi'kmaq, very ashamed, and probably was part of the reason why so many people tried to hide their Mi'kmaw ancestry, and stop speaking Mi'kmaw, and basically assimilated," said Wetzel.

Tens of thousands of Mi'kmaq reasserted their identity in the years after 2006 when the Federation of Newfoundland Indians reached an agreement-in-principle with the federal government for the formation of the Qalipu First Nation. The high number of applicants to the new status band was surprising to many in a province where it had previously been widely and mistakenly held that there were no indigenous people on the island of Newfoundland. (The Mi'kmaw community of Conne River was recognized and brought under the Indian Act in 1984.)

Kelly Anne Butler is a Mi'kmaw woman who is the Indigenous education specialist at Memorial University. (Submitted)

Reconciling with the past

Both Butler and Wetzel say action is needed in the modern day to get rid of the mercenary myth once and for all

Butler would like to see the matter discussed publicly in a forum that would highlight the lack of evidence for the previously taught version of events.

She hopes new Indigenous curriculum in N.L. schools will acknowledge that the myth has been taught in the past, and that it is not true.

Wetzel takes it one step further: he would like to see an apology.

"I think the premier of Newfoundland needs to stand up and own it, and apologize for it," said Wetzel.

"And not only apologize for it, but put some money where the words are, to correct it by having new books written that tell the true story of the history of Indigenous peoples and particularly Mi'kmaq in this province, and stop maligning them, because it hurts them."

CBC asked for a comment Friday morning from the premier's office, which said it is looking into the matter.

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Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.