Native Peoples -  A Special Case


by Kathryn Welbourn

Picture this. A group of space aliens land on Bell Island, Newfoundland. Since they consider themselves to be the first civilized beings to discover this province, which is rich in minerals valuable to them, they of course claim it for themselves. And begin to build a society which suits their own needs in every community in the province.

A century later, you and other Newfoundlanders, who's culture and economy were devastated by the alien invasion, recover a little and start demanding some rights and compensation for the land and way of life you have lost. The aliens, wanting to be reasonable and fair to the island's poor natives, are willing to listen to your demands if you can back them up with computer disks, produced at least two or three hundred years ago, proving your family lived here before the aliens arrived.

Of course, computer technology had not even been heard of by people on Bell Island and Cow Head 300 years ago. That technology had not even been invented here yet. So all the songs, stories, photographs, maps, deeds, letters, bank statements, credit cards and newspaper clippings you can come up with won't make any difference. As far as the aliens are concerned, you haven't been able to present them with even the most basic, archaic proof. Your family will be considered just another bunch of immigrants who moved to the island after the aliens' ancestors arrival to take advantage of the new society they created.

If you protest loudly enough, they may give you a little land, say about two acres, in an area they don't care about. But that's it.

Sounds pretty far fetched, doesn't it? But according to professor Sa'ke'j Hendersen, Canada's aboriginal law officer and the research director at the University of Saskatchewan's Native Law Centre, this is exactly what has happened to Newfoundland's Micmac people.

Micmac demands to establish a land claim here have been rejected by the provincial government, which maintains they have not proven their people lived and worked on the island since "time immemorial" - this province's requirement for land claim eligibility.

The province says the Micmacs are merely "recent immigrants" who came to Newfoundland from Nova Scotia in the 1700s, after the arrival of the Europeans. They came over then, according to the government, to trade furs and get religion from the French priests.

But, according to Hendersen, an expert in Micmac history, the province is ignoring the oral history of the Micmac people, and even the written documentation they have accumulated from the hunting maps and journals of French missionaries and explorers, which prove Newfoundland is part of the traditional Micmac territory Unamakik - the foggy lands.

One of the reasons this group is having such a hard time establishing their occupancy in Newfoundland is their traditional way of life. The Micmacs, an alliance of all Maritime Indians, did not stay in one place year round, but travelled by ocean-going, bark canoes across their Unamakik territory - from Cape Breton where they fished in the summer to southern Newfoundland where they traded furs with the French and got married by priests.

The writings of the French priest Father Baird in the early 1600s, the explorer Cartwright's journals, and the accounts of a Basque ship captain, B. Gosnold, confirm the Micmac claims, Hendersen says.

Even words in the Micmac language provide proof. For example, the Micmac place Tesateaik, pronounced Placentikik - has evolved into what we now know as Placentia.

Micmac elders still tell stories of their ancestors' hunting methods on the island, including their animal traps. Micmacs made laneways out of logs leading to a river or stream and then made noise to scare caribou into the "trap". When the animals ran down the lane and into the water or bog the Micmacs would then pick out the large, old animals and kill them with spears - a technique similar to the famous buffalo jumps in western Canada. The Newfoundland government does not accept this oral history despite the fact that this was the Micmacs only method of keeping records.

There is also some scepticism about the Micmacs ability to get to Newfoundland in canoes made from trees and bark. In response, Hendersen points out that oral history clearly shows these trips were made every year. In the fall, Micmac families would set out on a nice day from Cape Breton to Saint Paul's Island. They rested there and then set out on the four or five hour trip to Newfoundland, where they made bark wigwams for their winter hunting camps. In the spring when the ice broke up they would travel back to Cape Breton.

Hendersen believes all this adds up to proof which Newfoundland should accept as legitimate. And according to Rolland Pangowish, a spokesman for the Assembly of First Nations, Newfoundland is following an outdated policy for establishing land claims by insisting on proof of use since time immemorial anyway. The question which provincial and federal governments will be faced with in the future is - can they prove the aboriginal people weren't on the island before the Europeans "discovered" it ?



Freedom and Responsibility: A Human Rights Reader

Online Educational Resources

Copyright © 2003 Newfoundland-Labrador Human Rights Association

Historical profile on communities in Nujio'qoniik (Bay St George and the Port au Port Peninsula)

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