Wednesday, September 24, 2014
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Spring gathering helps bring governance issues to Membertou

Cape Breton Post

MEMBERTOU — Mixed amongst a day long celebration of Mi’kmaq culture was important information on governance issues for Membertou First Nation.

On one level the third annual spring gathering known as Wikipaltimk brought drumming, dancing and feasting to Membertou to kickoff powwow season for many.

However, another aspect of the celebration updated members of the community on governance goals of Membertou, including a citizenship or membership code.

"Essentially under the Indian Act the federal government used to be in control of everything — who is an Indian, who got to be a band member — in 1985 they changed that to allow first nations to create their own membership codes if they wanted," said Pam Palmater, guest speaker on Saturday.

"A little over half have done so since 1985 but in the Atlantic region it is still a very small minority of people so largely band membership is determined by Indian Affairs and Membertou wants to change that for their community."

Palmater is a Mi’kmaq lawyer who originates from the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She's also a professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and spoke on Saturday as part of an MOU signed between Membertou and the university.

She said Section 10 of the Indian Act allows a First Nations community to create its own membership code. They simply must go through a process of community information sessions and a vote.

"As long as the majority of the community votes in favour of it then that code is in place. Once the code is in place then all the responsibility falls to Membertou to maintain it, make amendments, make sure people are on the list and Indian Affairs is completely out of the picture."

Once in place, the code essentially determines who can be a member in Membertou.

"There are a bunch of different rights associated with that — who gets to live on the reserve, who gets programs and services and that kind of thing. Membertou tends to be a very welcoming inclusionary community anyway so I don't foresee a lot of significant differences. It will just be kind of a codification of what their Mi’kmaq practise already is."

Palmater has written about Indian status and band membership and approves of Membertou's approach to developing the membership code.

"Membertou is like the pilot of how does the community do it in a good way — making sure the community is informed, they get all the input and that becomes the living, breathing document as opposed to something (someone) drafts and says here is the code."

Cheryl Knockwood, organizer of Saturday's spring gathering, said Membertou's governance committee first considered creating the spring gathering about four years ago as a venue to distribute governance related information.

"We'd have community engagement sessions and get about 50 people and then someone said 'let's revive one of our cultural traditions' which is the spring gathering and use it as an opportunity to practise culture but in the background pass out information on governance."

As a result, she said each of the three gatherings has grown in popularity each year and have become an unnoficial kickoff to the powwow season.

"It's been along cold winter and people are excited about getting out and socializing again and so we attract not only Membertou community members and other communities and non-native people because it is open to the public."

Activities on Saturday began with breakfast provided by the Membertou Club 55 and continued with lunch at noon, grand entry at 1 p.m. and drumming and dancing throughout the afternoon.

A traditional feast followed Palmater's late afternoon presentation.

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