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Saqamaw (Traditional Chief) Mi'sel Joe of the Mi'kmaq Miawpukek First Nation, Conne River, Newfoundland. The nation signed an agreement on an ambitious plan to build a pipeline to tap into gas reserves buried deep under the ocean off Newfoundland’s coast.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

It used to be said if you wanted a job in Miawpukek First Nation, you had to walk through the woods for about three or four days until you found a road leading to the next closest town.

Chief Mi’sel Joe was one of the many young people who left the Mi’kmaq community on Newfoundland’s south coast in search of better opportunities. At age 16, he hopped a ferry to Halifax and went in search of work. He ended up mowing lawns in Toronto before working on the railroad, on farms, a ranch and in northern Ontario’s mines. He quickly learned how little he knew about the outside world.

“I didn’t know tomatoes came in anything but cans,” he said. “I’d never seen fresh vegetables before I left home.”

It wasn’t until 1975 that a logging road was finally built into Conne River, connecting the isolated community to the rest of Newfoundland and Labrador. Miawpukek wasn’t linked with hydro and telephone lines until decades after they arrived elsewhere on the island.

Today, young people no longer have to leave Miawpukek, as Chief Joe and many others did, for opportunities. The Mi’kmaq of Conne River are creating jobs for generations to come and becoming an increasingly important centre of economic activity in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The First Nation is now co-owner with several other Mi’kmaq bands of Clearwater Seafoods, the largest shellfish company in Canada. Last fall, the community signed an agreement on an ambitious plan to build a pipeline to tap into gas reserves buried deep under the ocean off Newfoundland’s coast, and begin exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe. They’re also being courted by mining companies and construction firms alike.

These kind of partnerships between the private sector and Indigenous businesses on natural resource development, while common in British Columbia and Alberta, are still rare in Atlantic Canada. It’s the first time there’s been First Nations equity in an offshore energy project in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The yet-to-be-approved LNG project would transport gas from the Jeanne d’Arc Basin via an underwater pipeline, and convert it into liquefied natural gas at a terminal in Placentia Bay, N.L., starting in 2030. The Mi’kmaq band will be the preferred vendor for escort vessels and supply ships during the construction phase, but will also benefit from permanent jobs, including operating an ice-breaker, once the gas begins to flow.

“It’s a long-term project, and it’s about building a future for our children,” Chief Joe said. “What we’re building now, we won’t see the payoff tomorrow. It’s for those next generations.”

The project, which has raised concerns from both environmentalists and Newfoundland’s largest fisheries union, is under review by a provincial environmental assessment committee. Chief Joe said he understands why some people are opposed to the idea of developing offshore gas, but says as partners in the project, the Mi’kmaq will have the ability to better advocate for those environmental worries.

“This was going to happen without or without us. So the best thing we could do, instead of standing on the shore and watching it happen, was to get involved to make sure the environment is being protected,” he said. “We can be part of the solution.”

These kind of partnerships between the private sector and Indigenous businesses on natural resource development, while common in British Columbia and Alberta, are still rare in Atlantic Canada.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

The natural gas project would also help train another generation of Mi’kmaq seafarers, which the chief sees as a natural extension of the band’s work in the fisheries. Miawpukek First Nation owns several dozen commercial fishing enterprises, including a startup business that cleans aquaculture nets. In all partnerships with non-Mi’kmaq businesses, such as a deal to sell its shrimp harvest quota to Newfound Resources, jobs for First Nations members are a priority.

The band, the only reserve on the island of Newfoundland, is pursuing opportunities on both land and sea. It’s started tourism ventures, launched a hunting outfitting company and recently purchased a motel in Exploits River, N.L., just off the Trans-Canada Highway, where it plans to expand reserve territory.

It’s negotiating with gold companies that have fanned out across central Newfoundland, eyeing partnerships with potential mine developments. It’s also in talks with the provincial government on a proposal to partner on forest management.

“There’s opportunities all over Newfoundland. You’ve just got to go out and look for it,” Chief Joe said. “Once people realize we’re for real, and we have creditability, people are starting to find us.”

It’s all part of Miawpukek’s goal to become self-sufficient, a vision that began in 1973 when the community formally organized into a First Nation. It’s been a slow march forward since then. In the 1980s, unemployment was still around 90 per cent. Today, employment is nearly 100 per cent, the chief said.

“Anyone who wants a job now can have one,” he said. “We don’t have to go begging for anything anymore. The dream has always been if we can have enough of our own revenue, we can take care of ourselves.”

Only a few generations ago, it was widely accepted in Newfoundland that the last of the province’s Indigenous people had long since disappeared. Schools taught that the Beothuk tribe, driven to extinction in the early 1800s, were the only Indigenous people who had lived on the island. Little attention was paid to the Mi’kmaq in Conne River and in western Newfoundland.

When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, premier Joey Smallwood dismissed the idea the Mi’kmaq required any consideration at all. There were no provisions made to protect their land, language or culture.

“He said we’d all be gone in a little while through intermarriage and assimilation,” Chief Joe said. “We were written out of the union completely. We weren’t even invited to be a part of Confederation.”

In Conne River, each new business venture is a reminder the Mi’kmaq aren’t going anywhere, the chief said. As a self-governing people, with control over their schools and their community’s growth, they’re rewriting their story, he said.

“We’re writing our own history today,” he said. “And it wasn’t done by sitting back in our cozy chairs, waiting for it to happen. We made it happen.”

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