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A positive shift is happening.
Throughout Atlantic Canada, Indigenous communities are taking control of their destinies.
A growing population, combined with economic, educational and cultural advances are ushering in renewal.
Together, young and old are walking on a path toward self-determination.
For thousands of years, Canada’s first peoples survived on their own.
They relied on the land for food, clothing, shelter, medicine and tools.
Their existence was negotiated with Mother Nature, and all living things, through ceremonies meant to bring peace and harmony.
“Indigenous people didn’t believe that they could own the land, their belief system was the other way around — that the land owned them,” said Stephen Augustine, a hereditary chief on the Mi’kmaq Grand Council.
But life would forever be changed in Atlantic Canada after repeated encounters with European migrants in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Believing they were a natural part of the changing landscape, Augustine said his ancestors helped these strangers through harsh winters.
The newcomers, in return, brought gifts to trade such as copper kettles, knives and axes — and eventually, Indigenous people began to rely on them for survival.
“The fur trade kind of changed things,” said Augustine, who is associate vice-president of Indigenous affairs at Cape Breton University.
“We hopped right into it almost blindfolded, and not realizing the impacts this would have on our environment.”
Shortly thereafter the arrival of settlers, Augustine said Indigenous peoples began fighting amongst themselves. At the same time, alcohol and religion were being introduced.
Unbeknownst to the country’s earliest inhabitants, French settlers had begun colonizing their lands.
Religious conflicts, growing political tension, and an intense rivalry over the fur trade resulted in an outbreak of war between England and France.
The British Crown had started entering into treaties with North America’s Indigenous groups in 1701 to support peaceful economic and military relations. These treaties continued over the next 200 years, providing respective rights for Indigenous peoples and Europeans newcomers to use lands that Indigenous peoples traditionally occupied.
Mi’kmaq elder and historian, Daniel N. Paul says a European invasion resulted in the near demise of their democratic societies.
Paul’s book, “We Were Not the Savages,” details the brutal treatment and complete displacement of Indigenous groups, particularly the Mi’kmaq.
“White supremacist racism was at the forefront until very recent times,” Paul said of these colonial and paternalistic policies that were enacted into laws.
By the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Indian reserve system was beginning to take shape.
Despite the setting aside large districts for the Indigenous, Augustine said a great deal of land was lost to British Loyalists who arrived after the American Revolution.
The economic and health conditions found on reserves would later be described as deplorable and their policies, culturally destructive.
“The federal government took over responsibility for looking after the Indians,” said Augustine. “The provinces were told you have no place in the matter of Indians living in your province. We will look after them and we will provide food and closing and shelter and education; everything they need to survive.”
By about the 1890s, Augustine said government was beginning to view them a problem that needed fixing.
“They said well we’re going to educate the children into the English language and the Canadian culture and we’ll just educate the ‘Indian-ness’ out of them.”
“Indigenous people belonged to the land just the same as the birds, plants, animals and fish.”
— Stephen Augustine, hereditary chief of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council
Residentials schools would attempt to assimilate roughly 150,000 Indigenous children.
Throughout the 1900s, several thousand Aboriginal people signed up to serve in the World Wars. But it wasn’t until 1960, that status Indians would be given the right to vote.
In the years that followed, their treaties would be affirmed by Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Today, Indigenous scholars say the historical events of colonialism cannot be overstated as the majority of First Nations communities in Canada are living below the poverty line.
“As a result of the residential schools and this colonization, our people are prone to laziness because there’s nothing on the reserves,” said Augustine. “Any of us who want to work, we go and educate ourselves and move off the reserve to find jobs. If I had stayed on the reserve, I’d be on welfare today.”
In 1970, when he was just 21-years-old, Augustine served as a councillor in his home of Elsipogtog, N.B. At the time, he was himself wary of government’s hierarchical systems.
“The chiefs and councils were not really well-educated enough to argue with the government, they just saw the money and went for it,” Augustine said.
“To everybody’s surprise after 10 or 20 years of this, they realized there was not enough money to go around for our people. And instead of our people fighting against the government, they were fighting amongst themselves now.”
Throughout the decades spanning from the 1970s until about the 1990s, it was a difficult time for individuals living in Aboriginal communities in Canada.
But then things slowly started to shift, said Augustine.
“Today, we’re a little bit better prepared — a little bit better,” he said.
“We’re still facing the element of not enough money. The federal government doesn’t have enough money to give the First Nations people to give them a level playing field. We still have a long way to go, because of the loss that we have suffered over the last 150 years.
“Our people are still suffering from that outlook in life.
“I mean the negativity, the poverty, the welfare, the suicides, the dropouts and all the negative elements that society can throw upon another group of people — I mean it’s been thrown upon us.”
Through education, music, language, history reenactments and more, preserving and celebrating First Nations culture plays an integral role in the success of Indigenous communities throughout Atlantic Canada.
Elsipogtog First Nation, New Brunswick
Connection: Elder and knowledge keeper
Andrea Colfer has literally put her health on the line for Indigenous education rights and dedicated her career to improving life for First Nation Canadians, something inspired by her father.
On his death bed, he told her to go to school and get as far as she could in “white man’s education” to better life for her children and community.
Colfer, a 52-year old married mother of three, first studied journalism at Western University, then took her Bachelor of Education and Master of Education at University of New Brunswick.
An advocate for better education on her reserve, Colfer was a part of the group that helped reform the school’s hygiene and food programs. When she was a teacher in London, Ont., Colfer was one of the staff that took part in a hunger strike in protest of funding cuts.
“I told them don’t quit school because I literally put my life on the line for your education.”
Colfer helped develop the new teaching Mi’kmaq language certification program at Mount Allison University, where she received an honorary degree in May, and works as a resolute health support worker with Atlantic Policies.
Memorial University in St. John’s
Connection: Special advisor on aboriginal affairs
Catharyn Andersen didn’t set out with any preconceived expectations when she took on her role as special advisor to the president of Memorial University on Aboriginal affairs.
There have been challenges, but Andersen is making a difference.
“We have a long way to go. But I think we have made some really good progress,” Andersen said.
Three months into her appointment in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its report. She said it was a watershed moment that changed the conversation across the country.
“It really helped us look at things in a different way,” she said.
Andersen, a three-time graduate of Memorial University, has seen a lot of change since she first came there to study in 1996 — she holds a bachelor of arts in linguistics, a master of arts in linguistics and a master of business administration.
One of the tasks was to develop a university indigenous strategy, which she has been working on for a year and a half. It should be ready this fall. Some people have questioned the process of adding indigenous perspective to the curriculum.
“On the other hand, a lot of people were really interested and motivated and energized to make those changes and are really looking for ways to do that and support it,” she said.
Lennox Island First Nation, P.E.I.
Connection: Keeper of the drum
A casual comment becomes a teaching moment for Gilbert Sark.
Sark and members of his Mi’kmaq singing group, Hey Cuzzins, had just completed a demonstration on the 29-inch drum he built when he mentioned a group that performs around a 52-inch drum.
“It would hardly fit in the trunk,” an observer comments.
“It never goes in the trunk; it’s in the back seat,” Sark corrects.
“One of the teachings is: ‘Treat your drum like a child.’ Would you put your child in the trunk?”
Sark, 40, was first introduced to the drum by a visiting group from Elsipogtog First Nation when he was 12. By 13, he was lead singer of Lennox Island’s first drum group. Two years later he formed a new group and has been keeper-of-the drum ever since.
“To follow traditional ways, it’s not easier, because you’ve got to change your attitude, your outlook on things, but it’s a lot more meaningful.”
Membertou First Nation
Connection: Sun Dance leader and general manager of Membertou Heritage Park
Jeff Ward wants travellers that find themselves in Membertou Heritage Park not to just see Mi’kmaw culture, but to feel and understand it.
“We tell the oral history of the people of the community of Membertou, and the thing that we believe in here is we don't reenact, we enact,” Ward said.
“That's the difference between museums and cultural centres.”
Ward, a father, educator, Sun Dance leader and general manager of the park, said he aims to preserve and share the history and culture of the Mi’kmaw people, which includes everything from the legal fight for the right make a living off their traditional lands and resources, to the origins of modern-day hockey.
“What do people fear? The unknown [...] They're scared of our people because they do not know who we are, where we come from,” he said.
“That's why I do what I do here, I wanted to break down those barriers. I wanted to teach people. Because right now there's a lot of people out there uneducated or unaware.”
Key dates in First Nations history in Atlantic Canada and across the country during the past 250 years.
June 24, 1610
Baptism of Chief Membertou in Port Royal, N.S. Membertou becomes the first native leader to be baptised by the French, as a sign of alliance and good faith.
Oct. 7, 1763
King George III’s Royal Proclamation establishes the recognition of First Nations rights in Canada and lays out the foundation for the treaty-making process.
Indian Act established to govern Aboriginal people and help introduce them to European Life.
Thousands of First Nation people served in the Canadian armed forces during the First World War and the Second World War.
United Nations Human Rights commission finds the loss of a woman’s status upon marriage violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Donald Marshall Jr. of Membertou acquitted and ultimately exonerated after being wrongly convicted of murder and serving 11 years in prison. His wrongful conviction is regarded as an example of racism against Native peoples.
Sept. 17, 1999
Marshall Decision: A six-year legal battle over native fishing rights concludes with a Supreme Court of Canada landmark decision upholds 1760-61 treaties granting hunting and fishing rights to the Mi’kmaq nation and, in so doing, overturned fisheries convictions against Donald Marshall Jr.
June 11, 2008
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issues an apology to former students of Indian residential schools and their families, and seeks forgiveness for the sufferings and the long-lasting impact the schools have had on First Nations, Inuit and Metis culture, heritage and language.
Dec. 15, 2015
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008 in response to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, releases its final report. In the report, the commission suggests the Indian Residential School System amounted to cultural genocide.
As part of our look at Indigenous successes we examine some of the ways these communities are moving forward in the face of adversity.