In Canada, Feeling ‘Robbed’ of Indian Identity, and Benefits

 

John Brennick and his cousins face a mountain of skepticism and shifting rules as a claim for recognition as Mi’kmaq, the indigenous nation on Canada’s Atlantic coast, creeps through the Canadian bureaucracy.       

CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times


LITTLE BRAS D’OR, Nova Scotia — John Brennick opened a box in his antique-filled house here to reveal a sleek sealskin pouch that a forefather stuffed with precious papers more than a century ago. On a nearby table lay the most important document: an 1818 land grant from Britain’s King George III, its wax seal still bright orange and largely intact.

There is no doubt that Mr. Brennick’s ancestor, Francis Young, existed, and there is little about who he was: a prosperous resident of Indian Village, as Nova Scotia’s Little Bras d’Or was once known, who Anglicized his name in order to win the land grant.


Assuming a British identity helped him avoid the fate of his indigenous kin who were being crowded onto reserves. But erasing his native heritage also deprived generations of his line from enjoying treaty rights as Indians, the name by which  Canadas First Nations are still legally called today.

Many of Mr. Young’s descendants are lobbying now for recognition as  Mi'Kmaq ,the indigenous nation on Canada’s Atlantic coast to which Mr. Young had ancestral ties.


“We were robbed,” said Nancy Swan, one of Mr. Brennick’s cousins, who still owns a portion of Mr. Young’s original grant. Ms. Swan has adopted the Mi’kmaw name Nastasi and attends Mi’kmaw powwows dressed in traditional regalia. (Mi’kmaw is the adjectival form of Mi’kmaq.) Ms. Swan leads a hundreds-strong group called the Little Bras d’Or Indian Association, whose members are fighting for official identification as Indians.


It is not simply sentimental. The federal government holds the legal right to grant “Indian status,” which comes with a card that gives the holder a host of privileges, including tax breaks, license-free hunting and fishing and, in some cases, the right to work in the United States visa free. The benefits can be worth thousands of dollars a year for each person, and they cost the government tens of millions of dollars annually.


Nancy Swan heads a hundreds-strong group called the Little Bras d’Or Indian Association. Its members are fighting for official recognition as Indians. CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times


But so far, Ms. Swan and her cousins have had no luck, facing a mountain of skepticism and shifting rules as their claim creeps through the Canadian bureaucracy. Who is and who is not recognized as an Indian — and who has the right to decide — is a hotly debated, hugely complicated issue here.

Many First Nations members say that the federal government should have no part in parsing identity, and that indigenous peoples themselves should decide. As they work through the courts to assert long-ignored treaty rights, the control of resources, from crabs to copper, hangs in the balance. 

The survival of the First Nations themselves depends on how they are defined.For centuries, Canada pursued a policy of coerced assimilation and deliberate extermination in order to erase the First Nations from the land, beginning with scalp bounties and continuing with the Residential School System, which one Indian affairs head referred to as a “final solution to the Indian problem.” 

Since the 1950s, however, increasingly organized and activist aboriginal organizations have fought through the courts to have their treaty rights recognized, leading to an economic boom for some First Nations and a surge of claims by people hoping to share in the bounty.Canada officially recognizes 634 First Nations, comprising a population of nearly 900,000 people or about 2.3 percent of the population. 

They are spread among nearly a dozen language groups, ranging 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.

Across the slate-gray Cabot Strait in windswept Newfoundland, one of Ms. Swan’s distant cousins, Jasen Benwah, says he is also descended from Francis Young.

“We are related to the same people,” Mr. Benwah said. “It’s a recognized family line.”But unlike Ms. Swan in Cape Breton, Mr. Benwah has Indian status. He is a member of the council that governs a group of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq who were recognized in 2011. His Mi’kmaw ancestors migrated to Newfoundland from Cape Breton, mostly in the 19th century to escape the encroachment of British settlement.

The difference in their status is a testament to the complexity of First Nations identity.

The vast island of Newfoundland, roughly the size of New York state, remained a British colony when the rest of Canada broke away as an independent federation in 1867. It did not join Canada until 1949 — on the condition that none of its people would be registered as Indians.

The Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland subsequently fought for decades to be granted status under the Indian Act. One band, as individual communities are called, was finally recognized in 1985. Nine remaining Newfoundland Mi’kmaw bands joined forces and fought the federal government for decades more. They agreed 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. They received more than 100,000 applications, a number that would dent tax revenues in a province of just over half a million. After the government had granted status to nearly 30,000 people, it suspended the process, announced that applications not yet reviewed would be put off, and began a lengthy review of those already approved. Many of those who now have status will most likely lose it when the review is completed in January, the government has said.

The result is a confusing patchwork of official Newfoundland identities. Perry Sheppard, a heavy-machinery operator from Lark Harbour, was not recognized as a Mi’kmaq — but his son was. Over a recent dinner in Port aux Basques, the elder Mr. Sheppard recounted how his son saved thousands of dollars in taxes when he bought a new pickup truck, thanks to his Indian status. But Mr. Sheppard paid the tax when he bought his own truck.

Many of the newly minted Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland had no idea about their indigenous ancestry until the government agreed to official recognition and there was a scramble for membership and the benefits it confers.

Aaron Hayes, his work boots still flecked with meat from carving up a moose outside of Port aux Basques, said he did not know he was part Mi’kmaq until the case was gaining steam a decade ago and a cousin told him.

“I called my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’m 44 years old, why am I just finding out about this now?’” he recalled. “She said that they were told as youngsters if it ever passed your lips, ‘We’ll smack the face right off you — don’t let anybody know.’ ”

Mr. Hayes subsequently applied for and was granted Indian status along with his children, one of whom is now at university, his tuition and books paid for by grants.

Nathalie Nepton, who manages the list of registered Indians for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, said recognition according to the Newfoundland model is a slow process that depends on more than genealogical ties. “There is a lot that needs to be looked at,” she said. “Are they able to prove they inhabited the area? Were there traditional activities involved? Were they displaced?”

Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw lawyer who has written extensively about First Nations identity, said there are hundreds of organizations across the country making claims similar to Ms. Swan’s. She believes the government made a mistake setting such lax criteria for the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq and is not likely to make it again. But the real problem is the concept of Indian status itself, she argued.

Despite the concession to the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq, many critics contend that the Indian Act is intended to eventually erase the legal existence of First Nations and release Canada from its centuries-old treaty obligations.

Under the act, if two successive generations of a family marry people without Indian status, the third generation will generally lose that status altogether. (The government has put a bill before Parliament to modify those rules somewhat, chiefly to eliminate differences in how men and women are treated.) Given the high rates of “out marriage,” Dr. Palmater said, each First Nation has an extinction date of roughly 75 to 100 years from now.

“We are all called Indians, but we are not Indians,” said Terry Paul, chief of the Mi’kmaw Membertou Band in Sydney, Nova Scotia. He said that the broad “Indian” categorization does not account for cultural variations between nations or recognize differences among the various treaties that the individual nations have signed. “We want to be recognized as Mi’kmaq,” he said, “not as Indians.”

Correction: December 29, 2016 

An article on Dec. 2 about residents of Nova Scotia who are fighting to be recognized as Indians, which would entitle them to tax breaks and other privileges, gave an outdated name for the department that oversees Indian affairs. It is Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, no longer Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.


https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/world/canada/canada-indian-status.html




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