Nova Scotia

How a part-time historian is dismantling misconceptions about Mi'kmaw culture

Michael McDonald says the opportunity to sit down and learn from Mi'kmaw elders has become few and far between, so he's started sharing his own research and history on Facebook.

Michael McDonald of Sipekne'katik First Nation is sharing his research and writings on Facebook

Michael McDonald aims to correct common misconceptions about the Mi'kmaq. He has written about how the British called the Mi'kmaq "semi-nomadic" in an effort to weaken land claims. (Submitted by Michael McDonald)

Michael McDonald was just a teenager when he had the opportunity to sit with Mi'kmaw elders, ask them about their history and hear personal stories from as far back as the 1890s.

The lawyer from Nova Scotia's Sipekne'katik First Nation said it's an opportunity that has become few and far between — an oral tradition that was lost when Mi'kmaw children were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools.

"There was no one to tell these stories and pass them on to," McDonald, who has described himself as a part-time historian, told CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia on Friday.

"And so the sad reality is that a lot of these elders ended up passing away and when they're gone, so went all the stories."

Michael McDonald is seen in a portrait photo from his time in the U.S. military. (Submitted by Michael McDonald)

A history not taught in schools

That loss of knowledge is what inspired McDonald to start doing his own research and sharing it with others online.

"There's a lot of information that's there. You just [have] to know how to look for it and where to look for it," he said.

"It's just stuff that we're not told or taught in school, and I felt that it was important to get that information out."

Over the past few years, McDonald has written some historical articles for the Nova Scotia Advocate, but he has recently turned to his own Facebook page to share important stories and history.

McDonald said most of his research has been done through the Halifax Armoury, which has documents relating to all the meetings that happened when Halifax was first established.

He also uses the Halifax Municipal Archives, which has material from Nicholas Deny, who spent 50 years living with the Mi'kmaw people during the mid to late 1600s.

He said those documents have allowed him to better understand how the Mi'kmaq lived and what they faced as a people.

Michael William McDonald, a lawyer from Sipekne'katik First Nation, has turned to social media to try to clear up some long-standing misconceptions about Mi'kmaw culture. Hear why he's hoping to correct misrepresentations of his People's history in this way.

It also helped him correct some misconceptions about the Mi'kmaq.

He said growing up, he would often hear people say that the Mi'kmaw people "never believed in ownership of the land or they didn't believe in that sense of title."

"However, I found that wasn't the case. In every single letter that the chiefs wrote to the British at the time, the chiefs clearly stated, 'This is our land. If you come on our land uninvited, we'll see you as an enemy and we'll attack you,'" he said.

"It was a demonstration of that whole concept of property rights. The essence of property law at its core is your right to exclude other people from your land and that's exactly what those chiefs did at the time."

Education through the Mi'kmaw perspective

McDonald has also written about how the British called the Mi'kmaq "semi-nomadic" in an effort to weaken land claims and how pre-contact Mi'kmaw populations have been misconstrued. 

He is also trying to bring attention to the lack of Mi'kmaw representation within the Nova Scotia Public Prosecutions Service.

By sharing this history and his experiences as a Mi'kmaw lawyer on Facebook, he's hoping to educate others through a Mi'kmaw perspective.

"The one thing you [have] to understand is that when the British wrote history, they wrote a history in such a way that followed their own agendas," McDonald said.

"And so when I read everything, I would decipher it as a Mi'kmaw person and what I learned of who we are as Mi'kmaw people and that's what is missing."

McDonald said his research and writings are available to everyone, so they can learn the truth about Mi'kmaw history and culture.

"I feel that by putting it out there, I think all Nova Scotians can have a better understanding of who we are as Mi'kmaw people and the things that we have endured and survived," he said.

"The fact that we're still here says a lot about the resilience of our people and who we are as a people in general."

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia