JOE FRIESEN - DEMOGRAPHICS REPORTER
The Globe and Mail
Newfoundland MP Gerry Byrne says he’s surprised only 100,000 people applied to join the new Mi’kmaq First Nation in Newfoundland.
Mr. Byrne has even applied for membership himself. Now, the Liberal MP is speaking out against a proposed bill that would allow the federal government to revoke Indian status from those who’ve already received it, while also blocking anyone from suing for damages over the way their application was handled.
“All it does is allow the government to delete names from the existing registry of Indians and to do so with financial impunity,” Mr. Byrne said. “If the federal government is already indemnifying itself against any damages, that makes a statement that they assume [a lawsuit] is coming and they assume they could very well lose.”
Mr. Byrne said the Ethics Commissioner has rendered a written opinion saying it is not a conflict of interest for him to speak publicly on the matter.
More than 100,000 people applied to join the Qalipu Mi’kmaq, about 10 times more than the federal government was expecting. The financial implications are significant, since status Indians in Canada enjoy some health and education benefits. The government has since taken steps to limit band numbers by tightening membership criteria. After the first round of 30,000 applications was assessed, more than 23,000 people were granted membership, making the Qalipu the second-largest First Nation in Canada.
The fairly broad rules for membership encouraged people to apply by the thousands. There was no blood quantum requirement. Applicants had to prove they had an aboriginal ancestor, someone who lived in a pre-1949 Mi’kmaq community, and the applicant had to be a resident of one of roughly 70 communities identified in the agreement, or connected to one of those communities.
“I don’t see it the least bit unusual that you’d have 100,000 people,” Mr. Byrne said. “It seems really rich that there’d be 100,000 people that would come forward. But you know what? It’s the rules that the government and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians agreed upon.”
Mr. Byrne said these criteria were the result of a 20-year process of litigation and negotiation.
“This was not written on the back of an envelope,” he said. “This was done very deliberately and in a calculated way.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt was not available for an interview. In a statement, he said the government is committed to ensuring the enrolment is done in a fair and equitable manner.
“This legislation will help to ensure that at the end of the day only eligible individuals will be granted membership in the First Nation,” Mr. Valcourt said.
The government has said roughly two-thirds of the applications come from people who do not live in the identified Mi’kmaq communities. The number of applicants is equal to roughly one in five residents of the province.
Mr. Byrne said he has known for many years that some of his ancestors were Mi’kmaq. His family tree intersects with the Mi’kmaq five times, he said. He was one of the last to apply for membership, in November, 2012, in part because he initially thought his claim would be turned down. When he looked more closely at the criteria, he saw that wasn’t the case.
“The problem here is the numbers, 100,000 people,” Mr. Byrne said. “To suddenly turn around and say it’s not reasonable that you got those numbers, I don’t think that passes the test of a reasonable person.”