Thursday, May 23, 2013

NLers finally embrace Mi'kmaq bloodline; Cons balk at application numbers

I gave the following 10-minute speech Wednesday (May 22nd) in the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker, when it comes to our Indian ancestry, the people of Newfoundland - that's Newfoundland in particular, not so much Labrador - haven't been overly proud.

We are not proud because the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland, the Beothuk, have been officially extinct for nearly two centuries.

Known as the Lost People of Newfoundland, the Beothuk were ravaged by massacres, epidemics and territorial losses, until - by the early 19th century - the group is said to have been completely wiped out.

Some first nations would dispute the claim that the Beothuk are extinct.

There is a belief in Mi'kmaq oral history that as white incomers tightened their control of Newfoundland, the Beothuk fled to the mainland and integrated with neighbouring groups.

In other words, among us all there is Beothuk blood somewhere in our genes through the marriages that took place.

That is the theory and I think it holds weight.

One thing is absolutely certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the Mi'kmaq bloodline runs through the veins of generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and that is what this motion is about.

In the fall of 2011, in what a government release deemed an "historic occasion," the Department of Aboriginal Affairs granted official Indian status to the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq.

The Newfoundland Mi'kmaq had been denied any claim to aboriginal title ever since 1949 when Newfoundland joined Canada.

Why is that?

Joey Smallwood, who brought us kicking and screaming into Confederation, did not bother to mention the Indian Act in the Terms of Union.

Talk about a monumental oversight.
There is no mention of aboriginal peoples within the Terms of Union that brought Newfoundland and Labrador - or Newfoundland as it was called then - into Confederation.

Aboriginal Affairs finally granted official Indian status to the Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, they finally got it.

It was originally anticipated that fewer than 10,000 people would step forward and apply for aboriginal status.

That number has since ballooned to 10 times that - more than 100,000 people have applied.

Some of those 100,000 people live in Newfoundland, more live on mainland Canada, and more still live all around the world.

The huge number, 100,000, has created a problem in terms of processing applications - 70,000 applications have yet to be processed.

The deadline for applying to become a member of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Band was November 30, 2012.

The agreement for the recognition of membership in the Qalipu First Nation Band expired this past March 21.

This motion calls on the Conservative government to extend that agreement for the recognition process of the Qalipu First Nation Band until all applications are processed and to ensure that the rules of eligibility for membership are followed by all government decision makers in any continuation of the enrolment process.

Further, all previous interpretations, precedents and rulings on matters affecting enrolment that were not specifically addressed within the agreement for the recognition of the Qalipu First Nation Band but were established through the records of decisions made by the enrolment committee and the appeals process should be made known to all participants in all future enrolment processes.

In other words, make the process fair and above board so everyone knows the rules of the game.

Spell them out, do not change eligibility requirements because more people applied than expected.

Do not do that. That is not the right thing to do.

All applications received before the original deadline should be processed in a fair and timely manner. That is not the case.

The total number of enrolment clerks hired and trained by the Government of Canada, by the Conservative government, to help with applications is three. There were more than 100,000 applications and we have three enrolment clerks.

Why did so many more Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the province, in the country and around the world apply for status than had been anticipated?

Why did the numbers go through the roof?

For generations, aboriginal roots were often hidden in Newfoundland and Labrador by those who preferred to pass as non-aboriginals because of discrimination.
People now, finally, are coming forward.

They are admitting and embracing their aboriginal heritage and history.

Sheilagh O'Leary, a councillor with the city of St. John's who has also applied for status, said, “It's about reclaiming identity and understanding where you came from.”

In many ways, people embracing their aboriginal heritage should be a cause of celebration.

Instead, the Conservative government is treating it as a cause of concern.

The Conservatives are telling them that the rules may now change because too many people are applying.

In the lead-up to the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, federal officials estimated that a maximum of 12,000 former students would step forward.

By last July, the secretariat handling the agreement had processed more than 30,000 claimants, driving up costs by more than $2 billion.

What does that tell us?

It goes to show that the Conservative government has a history of underestimating aboriginal populations and ancestry in this country.

Once again we see that the Conservative government has not provided the necessary resources to deal with a greater than expected number of applicants.

The right thing to do is to provide the necessary resources to finish the job and make sure the job is done right.

Although this application opportunity is no longer available for people, the application process for membership was lengthy.

It certainly was not easy. It involved geological research and compiling all necessary documentation.

However, there is still an opportunity for people to apply for membership through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, but that is an even lengthier process that can take years.

It is unfair to force these applicants to wait that long when the delay in processing the applications was the fault of the Conservative government that was due, again, to a lack of resources.

People whose applications are in limbo are concerned that the government never intended to create a landless band with nearly 100,000 members.

They are concerned that the government is going to alter the terms of the agreement and the enrolment process to deny the applicants or apply more stringent means of determining whether they are eligible for membership.

The government's decision to hire a special representative to review the enrolment process and investigate possible measures to address the situation while maintaining the integrity of the process and the spirit of the goals of the agreement only adds to people's concerns.

Both the enrolment committee and the people who judge the appeals set up the recognition order that created the Qalipu, and they have had to judge a number of membership applications. During that time, a number of precedents and interpretations were made of documents.

To sum up, this motion calls upon the government to ensure that all of those previous precedents set during the registration process be applied with futher applications, that they be above board and be made public so that everybody knows the rules of the game.

New Democrats agree that all applicants should be treated the same way.

Let us hope that happens.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.


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