Nfld. & Labrador

Qalipu First Nation membership top issue in race for chief, say candidates

Three Mi'kmaw candidates running against incumbent Qalipu First Nation Chief Brendan Mitchell say they can better handle the contentious enrolment issues of one of the largest landless bands in Canada.

3 challengers say they can better handle the controversial enrolment issue than incumbent Brendan Mitchell

Candidates for chief of the Qalipu First Nation say membership in the band is the top issue of the election. (Colleen Connors/CBC )

Three Mi'kmaw challengers running against incumbent Qalipu First Nation Chief Brendan Mitchell in the upcoming band election say they can better handle the contentious enrolment issues of one of the largest landless bands in Canada.

All four candidates for chief — Mitchell, Geoff Sparkes, Peggy White and Odelle Pike — have family members who lost status, and all say enrolment is the biggest issue on the campaign trail.

The federal government established Qalipu First Nation 10 years ago, and membership in the band has been a controversial topic for many. 

Nearly 24,000 people were recognized as founding members, in 67 Newfoundland communities and abroad. Within a few years of being established, more than 100,000 people had come forward claiming to be members. But the federal government reviewed membership claims, and many lost their status and related benefits.

Geoff Sparkes of Corner Brook is running for chief of the Qalipu First Nation. Voting begins Oct. 14. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

Sparkes, whose two brothers and sister lost their status when the federal government re-evaluated the enrolment process, says he wants to stand up for the people who were left behind.

"I'm hoping to effect that change and be the voice in unity with the rest of our people and their families and be the voice at the table with the federal government," he said. 

In Bay St. George South, Peggy White is saying the same thing.

White, the chief of Three Rivers, a Mi'kmaq band that makes up 10 communities near Robinsons, says she's the voice for the aging population in rural Qalipu communities, and her law education makes her the best candidate to stand up to the federal government and fight for all the Indigenous peoples in Newfoundland who lost their status.

"Our brothers and sisters, our children, have been taken away or left out of the band completely. And this enrolment process has done so much damage to the credibility, respect and dignity of the Mikmaq people and it has to stop."

"With my credentials I am not afraid. I am not afraid to stand up to Ottawa and say this is harming our people," she said.

Candidate Peggy White says she's the best choice to represent members in rural areas of the province. (Colleen Connors/CBC )

White says many mistakes were made and Mikmaq people in Newfoundland deserve better leadership than Mitchell. 

"He's had six years to try and correct this. He was well aware there was quota. And I think the people deserve better."

Mitchell disagrees.

"We are on a solid foundation right now and I'm not interested in anyone coming in and cracking that foundation," he said.

"In the last 10 years, Qalipu First Nation has grown. We have done a lot in terms of advancing our culture, our history, allowing people to understand where we came from, and we have done a lot to promote reconciliation in this province and country. "

Mitchell, who has been chief for six years, says he will continue to push the federal government to resume enrolment talks, which were suspended in March.

He even said he would go as far as marching to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office in Ottawa to finalize the enrolment process. The goal is to regain the power to make decisions as to who is in or out of the large band, he said. 

"We will determine then going forward who will be members of Qalipu First Nation." 

Odelle Pike, who has run for chief before, has put her name in again. (Colleen Connors/CBC )

Candidate Odelle Pike says there are no simple solutions.

The prominent Mi'kmaw leader in the Stephenville area says it was not an easy decision to put her name in and run for chief, but she had many people approach and ask her to run.

"It's not the point of running against him, it's running for what I think needs to be done," she said.

Pike says the enrolment controversy is complicated.

"You're dealing with the federal government and they have their own agenda. And people may think that the federal government is not in control [but] they are. So we have to establish good relationships and find the means to handle this problem," she said. 

Incumbent Chief Brendan Mitchell is running again in the Qalipu election with hopes of winning a third term. (Colleen Connors/CBC )

Voters have a full week to cast their ballot but there will be no polling stations in this Qalipu election. Members can vote for chief, vice-chief and councillor in nine electoral wards via phone or through an online process from Oct. 14-22. 

The new chief and council will be officially sworn in on Nov. 26.

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Colleen Connors reports on western Newfoundland from CBC's bureau in Corner Brook.