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Actors portray Mi'kmaq Grand Chief Henri Membertou, settlement leader Poutrincourt and Father Jesse Fleche, left to right, in the re-enactment of the baptism 400 years ago of Membertou in Annapolis Royal, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)
Actors portray Mi'kmaq Grand Chief Henri Membertou, settlement leader Poutrincourt and Father Jesse Fleche, left to right, in the re-enactment of the baptism 400 years ago of Membertou in Annapolis Royal, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Focus

A model native community remembers its past Add to ...

Four hundred years ago this week, a Mi'kmaq shaman and chief named Membertou knelt here to be baptized.

He was the first native convert in what is now Canada, brought into the faith by French cleric Jesse Flèche. The priest went on to baptize all of the chief's immediate family and a boom was on. Within decades, word had spread through Mi'kmaq lands, and thousands had been baptized.

The dark side of that legacy is well known. Many natives have since turned their backs on the church, repelled by brutal assimilation attempts and the dark stain of the residential schools. Mi'kmaq author and historian Daniel Paul argues that the baptism was a "nail in the coffin" of his people's freedom. But to others the church retains a strong appeal.

"The values of Christianity are good," commented Morley Googoo, chief of the Waycobah First Nation. "There's no doubt there's a disconnect in the hurt that was created by the residential schools. But it's still an important part of our history."

Chief Googoo was one of the organizers of an event on Thursday that saw hundreds come together near Annapolis Royal for a re-enactment of the historic day.

Drums and native song echoed over a spot barely changed since the original ceremony 400 years ago. Tall and bearded, the actor portraying Membertou cut an impressive figure in leather clothes patterned with bear paws, arrows and feathers. Together with family, he knelt before the priest and was flicked with water. Rising as a newly minted Catholic, he was given the name Henri, in honour of the French king.

A narrator explained that the original Membertou might have understood little of what was said in the ceremony, but he was aware of how keen for converts were his French visitors. It was the start of Christianity in these lands, the narrator said - a bond that has stood through the centuries.

As the Mi'kmaq community grapples with the complex effects of that history and tries to create a better future, the example of Membertou has once again gained widespread attention. But this time the focus is on the Cape Breton reserve that bears his name.

Membertou First Nation has a $75-million budget and boasts that it was the first native community in the world to achieve ISO 9001:2000 certification for its financial practices. It has signed major business deals, brought its unemployment down to about 16 per cent and finds itself watched closely by native communities eager to emulate its successes.

Chief Terrance Paul said part of anyone's path toward self-sufficiency is throwing off the shackles of the past, including the legacy of the residential schools.

"It wasn't the church, it wasn't the religion, it wasn't God that did this. It was people," said Chief Paul, who is Daniel Paul's nephew. "If you want to stop being a victim, I feel you need to forgive."

Membertou residents have shown that determination to transcend the past.

The reserve lies on marshy land near the infamous Sydney tar ponds, to which they were moved from their former harbourfront lands by government fiat in the 1920s. Opportunities were few. And they faced routine racism - a reality laid bare by the royal commission into the wrongful murder conviction of Donald Marshall: A member of the community who became a prominent activist, he spent 11 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. (He died last summer, aged 55, of complications after a lung transplant.)

Showing the sort of pragmatism displayed by their namesake - many argue that the 1610 decision to be baptized was largely about courtesy and realpolitik - the Membertou have turned themselves into one of the country's most successful and forward-looking reserves.

"People feeling sorry for us doesn't do anything," Chief Paul said. "Action does. People open to doing business with us does."

Few would have wanted to copy the Membertou reserve 20 years ago. In 1994, the band relied on federal funding for almost all of its $4.5-million budget, and still ran a $1-million deficit. Realizing they were hurtling toward a dead end, they went looking for someone with the business smarts to get the reserve back on track. Mi'kmaq lawyer Bernd Christmas was identified as the prime candidate. Chief Paul lured him back from Toronto as the band's chief executive officer.

"He said to me, 'We're attempting to break our cycle, we just can't rely on government any more and have to take matters into our own hands,' " Mr. Christmas said. "We had to figure out how do we bring the global marketplace to us."

They started small. In 1999, taking advantage of that year's Supreme Court of Canada ruling on native fishing rights - a case championed by Mr. Marshall - they started building a fleet. They soon signed a gambling agreement with the province and brought in video lottery machines, which helped to fund other ventures.

At the same time, Mr. Christmas was helping to instill a new culture of transparency and austerity in the community. They posted online their financial information, including the amounts paid to the chief and council. They balanced their books and opened a business development office in Halifax. The biggest statement came in 2002, when they achieved ISO certification - a kind of corporate baptism that put them on the map with international firms.

"Certification, I think, was the turning point, the culmination of everything we'd done," said Mr. Christmas, who has since returned to Toronto and runs the Bernd Christmas Law Group.

Shortly afterward, Lockheed Martin approached them about providing engineering and in-service support for a bid on a federal helicopter contract. The bid didn't succeed, but other opportunities were quick to materialize. The band's ventures now include fishing, gambling, retail, information technology and the hospitality industry. The latest addition to the reserve is a 33,000-square-foot business plaza, already 80 per cent occupied, that had a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Wednesday.

Keith Brown, vice-president of development at Cape Breton University, who with colleagues has spent years studying the community, points to several characteristics of the Membertou model. He said the community has benefited from its location right in Sydney, enjoys strong and long-serving leaders, demonstrates financial transparency, insists on accountability and shows an ambitious attitude toward doing business.

"They're becoming a very real economic engine for Cape Breton, not just Membertou," he said. "Membertou truly is a national exemplar for what can happen in first-nations communities."And that's the kind of progress that could give the baptism of 1610 a much happier sequel.

Follow on Twitter: @moore_oliver

 

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