Canada: 10 years on, newest First Nation wrestles with its identity

Calvin White spent his adulthood fighting for recognition of his people, the Mi’kmaw community of Newfoundland. Beginning in the 1970s, he traveled across the province organizing residents into what would later become the Federation of Newfoundland Indians. And he challenged legislation before the courts that led to the creation of the Qalipu First Nation in 2011.

This week it marks its 10th anniversary. But Mr. White says the struggle for justice is more pressing than ever.

Why We Wrote This

The recognition of the Qalipu First Nation was a major achievement for Newfoundland’s native people. But as Mi’kmaw elder Calvin White observes, success brought new questions about identity.

While recognition was a crowning achievement, the creation of the nation has also been mired in controversy over membership, surfacing divisive debates about identity that have divided families. And looking back at the long road to recognition, Mr. White is concerned the movement has veered from its original struggle for inclusion and equity.

“I’m more engaged now in the fight than I was in the ’70s,” he says. “After 10 years, I’ve realized that the fight has gotten bigger. It’s absolutely necessary to mirror back on where we are and try to correct some of the injustices and the wrongs that we’re now faced with, not in our struggle with the federal government, but our own struggle in Qalipu.”

Flat Bay, Newfoundland

When Newfoundland leader Joey Smallwood declared that there were “no Indians” in the province in 1949, Calvin White was very much evidence to the contrary.

He was 7 years old at the time, living in his secluded Mi’kmaw community on the southwest coast of Newfoundland. He snared rabbits with his grandfather. He fished for cod, lobster, salmon, and halibut. He learned to harvest seals and hunt moose, and above all that in any case they got was shared between all.

Mr. Smallwood’s words were incongruous with the experience of any native person in Newfoundland at the time. But as Mr. White grew, exposing their falsity became his life’s purpose, and he spent his adulthood fighting for recognition of his people. Beginning in the 1970s, he traveled across the province organizing residents into what would later become the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI). And he challenged legislation before the courts that led to the creation of the Qalipu First Nation in 2011.

Why We Wrote This

The recognition of the Qalipu First Nation was a major achievement for Newfoundland’s native people. But as Mi’kmaw elder Calvin White observes, success brought new questions about identity.

Meaning “caribou” in the Mi’kmaw language, Qalipu is the newest band to receive federal recognition in Canada. This week it marks its 10th anniversary, with celebrations to take place across Newfoundland.

But on a recent day at his home in Flat Bay, Mr. White, who was appointed to the Order of Canada for his advocacy, says the struggle for justice is more pressing than ever. While recognition was a crowning achievement, the creation of the nation has also been mired in controversy over membership, surfacing divisive debates about identity that have divided families. And looking back at the long road to recognition, Mr. White is concerned the movement has veered from its original struggle for inclusion and equity.

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