Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Government-Approved Identity: My First Nations Status

I wanted to write about something else, but this has occupied my mind lately.

Many years ago my family members began the process to join the Qalipu band and be recognized as Mi'kmaq. As I understand it a family member in Newfoundland saw a notice in the post office asking for people to submit if they were descended from recognized Mi'kmaq in the area. One of the names on the list was Webb. My great-grandfather was Mi'kmaq.

It took months for my family to submit all the paperwork and trace our lineage in documentation for approval. Sometime around 2008 we received notification that our application was approved.

While I've never thought of it to a great degree before now but the formal recognition caused a significant change in my personal identity. During most of my life my identity and that of my family was somewhat in question. Newfoundland family trees are notoriously unclear as birth records were kept by parishes for many years before the government. Once elders in your family pass away knowledge is easily loss of what your family tree is. The work in to clearly establishing our heritage answered questions and filled in missing pieces from our past.

I was in university at the time. As my family investigated our past I found myself increasingly drawn to Aboriginal history. While I would argue that learning Indigenous history is valuable in and of itself I felt it gave me greater historical perspective. In particular I found myself drawn time and time again to the relationship between the government and Aboriginal people. This culminated in pursuing a Master's degree in Aboriginal history. This later parlayed into my time in the Northwest Territories. The Dene and Mi'kmaq are not terribly similar cultures, but I did my best to engage with the local culture in a meaningful way.

My First Nations status has never been about benefits for me. I do not use it to avoid sales tax. I did not get free post-secondary education. I would reckon that my financial life has not substantially changed before and after my family and I were recognized. I enjoy it because I can take meaningful ownership of my heritage.

Last month my family and I received letters stating that the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and  would be revoking our status. According to the letter my qualification was primarily being challenged because my family no longer lived in Newfoundland. Given the bizarre point system my father may be able to launch an appeal, but my sister and I are likely unable to be reconsidered.

This decision feels like a terrible betrayal. It is as though something is being stolen from me. I am aware that no government decision can take away my heritage, but it does remove the legitimacy especially when Indigenous Canadians have their heritage regulated by government edicts. I plan to write my Member of Parliament in protest, but regardless I am afraid that my status will be lost.

Edit: I wanted to add in a comment by my cousin that I think nicely summarizes those feelings of many in my family:
... since getting our letters in early February, that told us, after 8 years of having been approved to be a member of the Qualipu Band that we no longer "meet the criteria". Indeed, it feels like a betrayal. I was, effectively denied my heritage for the first 35 years of my life - due in part by a Government that didn't even know there were Indians in Newfoundland and a stigma so bad that my grandmother hid her Indian heritage. I will appeal, but I suspect, as does my cousin, that it will be in vain.

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