Canada: 10 years on, newest First Nation wrestles with its identity

Canada: 10 years on, newest First Nation wrestles with its identity




Calvin White spent his adulthood fighting for recognition of his people, the Mi’kmaw community of Newfoundland. Beginning in the 1970s, he traveled across the province organizing residents into what would later become the Federation of Newfoundland Indians. And he challenged legislation before the courts that led to the creation of the Qalipu First Nation in 2011.

This week it marks its 10th anniversary. But Mr. White says the struggle for justice is more pressing than ever.

Why We Wrote This

The recognition of the Qalipu First Nation was a major achievement for Newfoundland’s native people. But as Mi’kmaw elder Calvin White observes, success brought new questions about identity.

While recognition was a crowning achievement, the creation of the nation has also been mired in controversy over membership, surfacing divisive debates about identity that have divided families. And looking back at the long road to recognition, Mr. White is concerned the movement has veered from its original struggle for inclusion and equity.

“I’m more engaged now in the fight than I was in the ’70s,” he says. “After 10 years, I’ve realized that the fight has gotten bigger. It’s absolutely necessary to mirror back on where we are and try to correct some of the injustices and the wrongs that we’re now faced with, not in our struggle with the federal government, but our own struggle in Qalipu.”

Flat Bay, Newfoundland

When Newfoundland leader Joey Smallwood declared that there were “no Indians” in the province in 1949, Calvin White was very much evidence to the contrary.

He was 7 years old at the time, living in his secluded Mi’kmaw community on the southwest coast of Newfoundland. He snared rabbits with his grandfather. He fished for cod, lobster, salmon, and halibut. He learned to harvest seals and hunt moose, and above all that in any case they got was shared between all.

Mr. Smallwood’s words were incongruous with the experience of any native person in Newfoundland at the time. But as Mr. White grew, exposing their falsity became his life’s purpose, and he spent his adulthood fighting for recognition of his people. Beginning in the 1970s, he traveled across the province organizing residents into what would later become the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI). And he challenged legislation before the courts that led to the creation of the Qalipu First Nation in 2011.

Why We Wrote This

The recognition of the Qalipu First Nation was a major achievement for Newfoundland’s native people. But as Mi’kmaw elder Calvin White observes, success brought new questions about identity.

Meaning “caribou” in the Mi’kmaw language, Qalipu is the newest band to receive federal recognition in Canada. This week it marks its 10th anniversary, with celebrations to take place across Newfoundland.

But on a recent day at his home in Flat Bay, Mr. White, who was appointed to the Order of Canada for his advocacy, says the struggle for justice is more pressing than ever. While recognition was a crowning achievement, the creation of the nation has also been mired in controversy over membership, surfacing divisive debates about identity that have divided families. And looking back at the long road to recognition, Mr. White is concerned the movement has veered from its original struggle for inclusion and equity.

“I’m more engaged now in the fight than I was in the ’70s,” he says. “After 10 years, I’ve realized that the fight has gotten bigger. It’s absolutely necessary to mirror back on where we are and try to correct some of the injustices and the wrongs that we’re now faced with, not in our struggle with the federal government, but our own struggle in Qalipu.”

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<p> Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor </p>
<p>A view of Flat Bay, Newfoundland, where elder Calvin White has been fighting for recognition of Mi’kmaw rights for his complete life. </p>
<h2>A province’s denial of its peoples</h2>
<p>Premier Smallwood’s denial of indigeneity on the island of Newfoundland has had ramifications felt legally, politically, and culturally by to the present. closest it meant that native people of Newfoundland were not recognized under Canada’s Indian Act, excluding them from federal rights and benefits. In popular understanding, it made them invisible. It suggested that the native history stopped at the Beothuk, who were declared extinct in the 1800s – though that is contested today.</p>
<p>“The myth of extinction, this idea that when the Beothuk went extinct that there were no native people left in the province … was a sentiment that was held by a lot of people within settler colonial society,” says Katherine Morton, instructor in anti-colonial and native studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “So native identities were often hid. Families were in a position where in order to be safe, they had to remove parts of their native ancestry from their family stories. … When Newfoundland entered into the country of Canada with the Indian Act never being extended, there was this enormous impact that we’re nevertheless feeling ripples of.”</p>
<p>Mr. White was among those determined to set the record straight. But first, he had to grapple with changes in his own community. The province was modernized when it joined Canada in 1949 – the last to do so – with new roads, jobs, and rules. Regulations around hunting and fishing had irreversible effects on traditional ways of living. It thrust families into social despair, compounded in Flat Bay by the presence of a nearby American air base that brought a corruptive force, he says.</p>
<p>The eldest of eight, Mr. White alternation to these changes initially. He quit school at 14 to work for a paper mill with his father, the two setting up camp in the woods. At first the job gave them the flexibility to hunt or snare between logging. But when the industry was mechanized, bringing stiff work schedules and hourly pay, he went back to school, finishing eighth grade and becoming a heavy machine operator.</p>
<p>That was an awakening. Away from his community for the first time, working at a hydroelectric plant in Labrador, he bore observe to the kind of discrimination that would fuel his lifelong fight. “The racism was brutal for absolutely no reason whatsoever, just because of who you were and the color of your skin.”</p>
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