Society

Can the Government Take Away My Indigenous Identity?

With my status under threat, I am revisiting what it means to be a Mi’kmaq writer

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

On January 31, 2017, I received a letter in the mail revoking my status as a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation. As a Mi’kmaq poet with fair skin and pale blue eyes, I’ve raised eyebrows and been questioned by readers about how “Indigenous” I am. But I never thought such questions would come from the federal government.

I am one of the 83,000 people who received a letter from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada repealing their membership in the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, a band that includes several communities in Newfoundland. The rejections came as a result of the overwhelming number of applicants: since 2009, more than 100,000 claimants have stepped forward to join the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation as founding members. Now I am being forced to re-examine my ancestral ties and answer a government accusation that threatens my Indigenous authenticity. Instead of writing poetry, I am writing an appeal letter.

Identity shapes a sense of belonging. With the loss of my status, many threads of my life are unravelling—my poetic practice and livelihood have been formed by questions of Indigeneity. The land is where I seek answers, and the wind carries the voices of my ancestors. In the era of Joseph Boyden’s shape-shifting identity debacle, I’m concerned about my right to write from this place—my Mi’kmaq spirit.

I have published an award-winning poetry collection; I have explored my Indigenous ancestry, Mi’kmaq linguistics, and travelled to readings across Canada; I have taught literature to students in the Department of English at Memorial University and to incarcerated Indigenous women in the Clarenville correctional centre. I had rarely in my life felt surefooted or rooted in a solid sense of self until I rediscovered my Indigeneity. Now a further challenge has come from the government and the people to whom I belong.

Newfoundland is where the colonization of North America began, and the colonial agenda still prevails. Yet long before John Cabot arrived in 1497 and claimed the land on behalf of England, the Mi’kmaq, Innu, Inuit, and Beothuk were the traditional custodians of Newfoundland and Labrador’s lands and waters. Despite this history—or perhaps because of it—the Indigenous people of Newfoundland and Labrador have long been dismissed and shamed into silence. When the province joined Confederation in 1949, the government, under premier Joey Smallwood’s guidance, inaccurately declared that there were “no Indians on the island of Newfoundland.” Smallwood’s dismissal prevented the formal and legal recognition of Newfoundland’s Indigenous people for decades.

In response, the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (initially known as the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador) was formed in 1972 to gain political recognition for First Nations, Innu, and Inuit people. The federation, which at that time had 10,000 members, included six Mi’kmaq bands: Elmastogoeg First Nations, Corner Brook Indian Band, Flat Bay Indian Band, Gander Bay Indian Band, Glenwood Mi’kmaq First Nation, and the Port au Port Indian Band. (Not long after establishing the FNI, the Innu and Inuit formed their own organizations.)

After massive flooding in 1964 from the Bay d’Espoir hydroelectric project on the south coast of Newfoundland, the region’s caribou population declined, endangering traditional Indigenous livelihoods. In 1987, the federal government recognized the Miawpukek Mi’kmaq First Nation, one of the communities in Bay d’Espoir, under the Indian Act. But there was no recognition for the rest of Newfoundland’s Mi’kmaq people until the official formation of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation on September 26, 2011—it’s now the second-largest First Nations band in Canada, and arguably one of the most controversial because of its expansive membership and Newfoundland’s colonial history. In a province where Catholicism reigned, many people tried to hide their Indigenous identity and culture; those who didn’t were labelled “Jackatars”—a pejorative Newfoundland term that refers to those of mixed French and Mi’kmaq ancestry and has connotations of laziness, promiscuity, and dishonesty.

From 2004 to 2006, the federation and the government negotiated an agreement to form the “landless” band (the Qalipu Nation does not have a reserve; it is rare in Canada to have status as a group without having negotiated land claims). The first stages of the enrolment process began in 2009. The majority of the first round of applicants to Qalipu—which included my father and me—qualified, while the second round of applicants waited on official acceptance.

But how can a province go from “no Indians” to 100,000 people claiming Mi’kmaq identity? This question perplexed Ottawa and many other First Nations communities in Canada. Initially, the estimated membership of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation was a ballpark figure based on the number of Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI)—around 10,000. As tens of thousands more applications came in from across North America, Australia, Hong Kong, and beyond, Ottawa and Qalipu agreed: not everyone who claimed Mi’kmaq ancestry qualified.

To address these problematic applicants, the government and the FNI established a “point system,” which determined an applicant’s ancestry, connection to the land, and relationship with the Mi’kmaq way of life. However, even many established members of the Qalipu Nation have been tangled up in a review process that has dragged on for years.

Many applicants and existing members have ended up being rejected by the band because they have not reached the necessary total of thirteen points. Families are being split up in the process; while some people, such as my cousins who live in Newfoundland, are keeping their status cards, the rest of us will lose status in 2018 unless our appeals are successful.

For the Qalipu Nation, a mathematical equation now defines status and identity. And according to six representatives from the FNI and six government representatives, I am only three points Indigenous.

I received no points for “Communications with members of location of the Mi’kmaq Group of Indians of Newfoundland.” Zero points in terms of “Residency,” as I didn’t live in Newfoundland when I originally applied for my status, and previous residency in St. John’s doesn’t count. (I did receive two points for the “Frequent visits” I made to “a Mi’kmaq Group of Indians of Newfoundland community”—I have visited Newfoundland all my life.) And I got another zero for “Membership in a Mi’kmaq organization prior to June 23, 2008,” which is worth nine points of the thirteen necessary to keep status. I received one point in “Maintenance of Mi’kmaq culture and way of life.”

The government can’t actually eradicate someone’s identity as an Indigenous person, but it can take away their status card. The revocation of my membership in the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation threatens my sense of identity and leaves me wondering: Do I have a right to claim and write Indigenous stories and poems?

I came into my Mi’kmaq ancestry in my early twenties—I was raised by my mother and stepfather in Oshawa, Ontario, and had only limited visits with my father growing up because of his alcoholism. Through the process of rediscovering my ancestry, I’ve undergone an internal shift of identity by connecting with my ancestors, and found a sense of belonging and healing.

My grandfather Aiden Webb’s “racial origin” was listed as “English Indian” on the 1945 nominal census. His son—my father, Kevin Webb—is only six points Indigenous, according to the new system. He was born and raised in Flat Bay, Newfoundland, a small, self-governed Mi’kmaq fishing community southwest of Corner Brook. Although it is not a reserve or administered by an incorporated band council, everyone in Flat Bay is Mi’kmaq.

Yet most of its residents moved away over the years and lost their status. Like thousands of other Indigenous people from Newfoundland and Labrador, my father and the majority of his dozen siblings were forced to leave Newfoundland in search of work or face a lifetime of poverty and social services. At sixty-six, my father—who dropped out of elementary school and struggles with the appeal process because of his illiteracy—lost his status because he now lives in Scarborough, Ontario. Born a year after Confederation, reared on Mi’kmaq land, and raised with traditional ways, my father changed when his status card arrived and he reclaimed his Mi’kmaq identity. Now he is being stripped of his pride.

After we both received our status in 2011, my father and I began rebuilding our relationship and became more involved with our Mi’kmaq ancestry. He has now been sober for nearly a decade. Recently, he gave me a moose-hide drum, made by an elder in Stephenville, Newfoundland. This past summer, while taking Aboriginal Matters: Myth, Medicine and Magic—the first-ever graduate-level Indigenous literature class offered by Memorial University—I received a Facebook message from my Indigenous half-brother; he’s originally from Chilliwack, British Columbia, where my father once lived on reserve long before I was born.

There was something about belonging to the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, a landless band, that made me feel grounded, as if I finally had some roots. Again, the earth was coming up from underneath me. Now I am learning to navigate a future without a status card, as a former member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.

The Qalipu chief, Brendan Mitchell, knows status and identity aren’t necessarily linked, and wants to encourage people who lose their cards not to dismiss their Mi’kmaq identity, culture, or way of life.

“Think back to six years ago: we never had a card—none of us. A lot of us were involved in Mi’kmaq culture. Was the card so important to you back then? We got a card, and that’s changed the way we are viewing ourselves,” he says. “We don’t have a card to identify or define us. This is the attitude I’d like to continue. We are inclusive. We should still do this. You are Mi’kmaq in your heart. It’s not about a piece of plastic in your pocket.”

Elder Odelle Pike, the acting president of the Newfoundland Aboriginal Women’s Network, lives in Stephenville, and traces her Mi’kmaq lineage back nearly four centuries. She believes it’s unlikely that members who weren’t originally members of Federation of Newfoundland Indians (or other bands) prior to 2008 will win their appeal.

“The sixty-seven [small] communities [who were under the umbrella of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation and have had their status repealed or rejected] will still maintain the Mi’kmaq culture. No government can ever take that away from us,” says Pike. “This was a process for who would be founding members of Qalipu First Nation. It doesn’t mean we are not Mi’kmaq.”

Pike has received her letter confirming her status as a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, as have her children. Yet her sister, Eileen, who just won an Indspire Award—an honour given by an Indigenous community to an inspiring Indigenous person—was rejected. So was her husband, a former chief of the Indian Head First Nations in Stephenville, Newfoundland, and their children, who live in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Most of Pike’s siblings who live outside of Newfoundland and Labrador have also lost their status.

“Many families are divided. Some are keeping their status, while others are losing theirs. This is very difficult for family members, and it is causing much tension,” says Pike. “It is very difficult for many people to understand the process. Many people just don’t understand what the government is asking for, and they have difficulty filling out the appeal process.”

“The point system is certainly flawed. Nowhere else in the world would Indigenous people have to do this. It is definitely racist, demeaning, and unconstitutional,” says Pike.

Carrying a status card is a double bind—it’s both an honour, and an act of assimilation. There are benefits to being status First Nations as an artist in Canada, including having access to Indigenous programs, awards, and separate funding bodies within the Canada Council for the Arts—which often require proof of Indigenous status and don’t always accept self-identification as legitimate. If a piece of plastic solidifies an unwritten identity, my status card was a tangible defense against those who deemed my blue eyes and light skin “not Indigenous enough.”

Though I attend powwows and ceremonies, and am learning to write some Mi’kmaw, I am exploring multiple selves and reorienting my sense of self as an Indigenous writer. As I work on my appeal letter, I am writing a play, The Landless Band, about the complexities of finding yourself as an Indigenous person; a short-story collection, We Are What Claims Us, which circles around hidden Mi’kmaq culture trauma, and colonialism; and my second collection of poetry, Who Took My Sister?, which explores decolonial poetics and Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (several poems are being transformed into a classical music piece). There are responsibilities and protocols involved in claiming my identity as a Mi’kmaq poet and writing from an ancestral place. I feel a mix of shame, vulnerability, and threat in this appeal process, yet I continue to strive to honour my community and families.

Whether my appeal is successful or not, I self-identify as Qalipu Mi’kmaq and know where I belong. I am an Indigenous writer, and poetry is my appeal, although my work is unlikely to secure me any extra points with a government that refuses to acknowledge 15,000 years of Indigenous people protecting these lands and waters. On Canada’s sesquicentennial, L’nu Neuptjej—I am Mi’kmaq forever.

Shannon Webb-Campbell (@shannonwc) is a Mi'kmaq poet, writer, and critic.

Hanna Barczyk is a former art intern at The Walrus, and contributor to the New York Times and This Magazine.

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