The creation of a unique Newfoundland aboriginal band meant to help rectify historical injustices against Mi'kmaq has prompted anger and confusion, as tens of thousands of people receive notice they have been rejected as founding members.
More than 100,000 people applied to be founding members of the Qalipu First Nation Band, but the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada announced Tuesday that only 18,044 are eligible.
In some cases, people who were already accepted as members will see their Indian status revoked. In others, family members of successful applicants were themselves rejected.
Qalipu Chief Brendan Mitchell said these sorts of "anomalies" are perplexing the community. He said it raises questions about the enrolment process.
"Think about that for a moment: People have a (status) card for five years and all of a sudden the Canadian government says, 'We're not recognizing you anymore. Give me your card back'," said Mitchell in a phone interview from his office in Corner Brook, N.L., Tuesday.
"Sadly, the Government of Canada, in my view, shows no remorse or compassion about what happened here. It's, 'Well we had a deal and here's the outcome and screw it — you're in or you're out'."
The controversy dates backs to 1949, when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation. But the federal Indian Act was never applied to Mi'kmaq in the province, and members of the community say their heritage and culture were suppressed for years.
In 1989, the Federation of Newfoundland Indians took Ottawa to court seeking eligibility for registration under the Indian Act. That resulted in a 2008 agreement to establish a landless band for Mi'kmaq in the province.
A supplemental deal in 2013 set up an enrolment committee to assess "current and substantial" connections to the group after it was inundated with more than 100,000 applications — equivalent to almost one-fifth of the province's population.
The department says roughly 10,000 applicants who were on the original members list did not meet the criteria under the 2013 agreement. They are entitled to appeal the decision.
Members of the band gain access to federal programs for things like post-secondary education and non-insured health benefits.
More than 68,000 applications were rejected by an enrolment committee that included an equal number of representatives from Ottawa and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians.
"This is a complex process. It's difficult in the sense that obviously some people won't be happy with the results, but I think we need to look at the positives," Fred Caron, ministerial special representative for the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, told reporters.
"The creation of the Qalipu First Nation ... will result in a First Nation that is the second largest by population in Canada."
Caron said the main reason applicants were rejected was because they did not live in Newfoundland and could not demonstrate they still have a connection to Mi'kmaq communities. That included providing evidence such as plane tickets or credit card bills.
Barry Wheeler of Summerside, N.L., said he was accepted as a founding member of the band. But Wheeler said he feels torn because a sister living in Ontario, who was on the original list of founding members, was rejected.
"Just look at the irony. We were created as a landless band, and now they're looking at geography to determine who and who isn't Mi'kmaq? It's in our blood. It's who we are as a people. It doesn't change our ancestry... It's discriminatory," said Wheeler in a phone interview Tuesday.
Two other sisters and a brother haven't heard about their applications yet, he said.
"Let me stand up and be counted and be proud of who I am for the first time and not have any cloud hanging over me."
Caron noted that being rejected as a founding member does not mean an applicant cannot practice Mi'kmaq culture.
"It doesn't have anything to do with Mi'kmaq identity. It has to do with membership in the Qalipu Mi'kmaq band," he said. "When the historic First Nations were created, the original founding membership lists were composed of the people who actually lived there."
He said it is anticipated that 95 per cent of the membership will be made up of people living in the province.
The final list of the founding members will only be known after the appeal process, and when it is officially confirmed through an Order in Council, expected in the spring of 2018.
Mitchell said the band will be making appeals on behalf of many applicants.