Canada moved this week to revoke the Indian status of thousands of people in Newfoundland who had been recognized as “founding members” of the Qalipu First Nation band. It is the latest step in a chaotic process to decide who among the sprawling island’s nearly 530,000 people should be recognized as Native Canadians.
The government also rejected outright 72,118 applications from others hoping to receive the status and benefits that band membership confers.
“I’m concerned about the hurt and division these outcomes may cause among families and communities,” Brendan Mitchell, chief of the Qalipu, said in a statement.
The federal government holds the right to grant Indian status, a source of considerable pride for people of native descent. It also comes with privileges that include tax breaks, license-free hunting and fishing and, in some cases, the right to work in the United States without a visa. The benefits can be worth thousands of dollars a year for each person, and they cost the government tens of millions of dollars annually.
Canada officially recognizes 634 First Nations, comprising nearly 900,000 indigenous people, or about 2.3 percent of the country’s population. They are spread among nearly a dozen language groups, from Mi’kmaq on the Atlantic coast to Dene in the Northwest Territories. First Nations do not include the Inuit of the far north or the Metis, a people of mixed ancestry.
But who is and who is not recognized as an Indian is a hotly debated, hugely complicated issue. The vast island of Newfoundland, roughly the size of New York State, remained a British colony when Canada was formed in 1867. It did not join Canada until 1949 — on the condition that none of its people would be registered as Indians. But thousands of Newfoundlanders traced their ancestry to the Mi’kmaq, the original inhabitants of Canada’s Atlantic coast, who were first encountered by the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier on his 16th-century voyages of discovery.
The Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland fought for decades to be granted status under the Indian Act, which governs Canada’s relations with its indigenous peoples. One band, as individual communities are called, was finally recognized in 1985. Nine remaining Newfoundland bands joined forces and fought the federal government for decades more. They eventually agreed in 2008 to be grouped together as a single band — the Qalipu, which means caribou in Mi’kmaq — with limited rights and no reserve land.
The government established an enrollment process and expected about 10,000 Newfoundland Mi’kmaq to apply. But it received more than 100,000 applications, prompting the government to suspend the process, tighten its criteria and begin a lengthy review of those already approved while applying the stricter rules to those applications not yet reviewed.
On Monday, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the department that oversees indigenous affairs, sent letters to applicants and announced the results of the review on its website: Only 18,044, or about one in five, of those who applied had been accepted.
Chief Mitchell said in his statement that the decision risked hurting the good will created by forming the Qalipu band in the first place.
Fred Caron, ministerial special representative for Indigenous and Northern Affairs, defended the decision, saying the department had “worked hard to ensure a fair and equitable enrollment process which will uphold the integrity of the membership of the band and will result in a First Nation that will be the second largest in Canada,” The Associated Press reported. The Six Nations of the Grand River band, in Ontario, is the largest First Nation by population in Canada.
Mr. Caron said the main reason applicants were rejected was that they did not live in Newfoundland and could not demonstrate that they had a connection to Mi’kmaq communities, The A.P. reported.
Perry Sheppard, a heavy-machinery operator from Lark Harbour, Newfoundland, said his application was approved and his son’s Indian status was confirmed, but neither his mother nor his daughter were approved.
“The results are a disaster riddled with mistakes as families are split between rejections and approvals, sometimes in the same households,” said Jasen Benwah, a member of the council that governs the Qalipu band.
Those whose applications were rejected or whose previous Indian status was not confirmed can appeal. Others among the 10,512 current Qalipu members who stand to lose their Indian status may be spared if they are related to someone whose status was approved.
The final list of who is and who is not an Indian in Newfoundland will not be settled until the appeals process is completed in 2018.*
By Craig S. Smith