It’s like something a satirist would dream up: Ottawa agrees to correct a historical oversight and grant Indian status to Mi’kmaqs living in Newfoundland. Doing so will make the Mi’kmaq eligible for health, education and training benefits under the Indian Act. Estimates indicate that between 8,700 and 12,000 people will qualify. But when the newly formed band starts taking applications for membership, more than 100,000 people, or one in five Newfoundlanders, submit their names.
Ottawa and the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band are now in the process of sorting out this all-too-real mess, and rightly so. The deadline for establishing membership has been postponed, all accepted applications are being reviewed, and tougher criteria are being applied. Some people who were accepted based on self-identification are going to lose their status. They’re crying foul, but the federal government and the band are acting well within their rights.
A supplemental agreement to the original 2008 deal puts the government’s case clearly: “In making the [original] agreement, the parties were guided by the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R. v. Powley where the court recognized that belonging to an aboriginal group requires at least three elements: aboriginal ancestry, self-identification and acceptance by the group. The Supreme Court stressed that self-identification and acceptance could not be of recent vintage.”
It’s the vintage issue that is the source of trouble. The band is a landless one; membership was supposed to be available to people living in Mi’kmaq communities that existed prior to 1949, when Newfoundland joined Confederation, or to their descendants. But membership was also offered to anyone who self-identified as Mi’kmaq and was accepted by the band.
Ottawa now wants people who belatedly discovered their Mi’kmaq ancestry to prove they had a link to the band that predates the 2008 agreement, for example, proof that a person has ever visited or communicated with a Mi’kmaq community, or perhaps self-identified as Mi’kmaq on a government form in the past.
This is not to say that there aren’t more Mi’kmaqs in Newfoundland than the government originally thought. Each application has to be considered on its merits. But does it seem likely that one in 50 people living in Newfoundland was Mi’kmaq before the agreement, but now that benefits accrue for self-identification, suddenly one in five is Mi’kmaq? The stuff of satire, indeed.