Editorial: A surprising boom in Aboriginal heritage

While some may seek to exploit ethnic mobility for their own gain, there’s something hopeful about the breaking down of barriers

The history of First Nations in Newfoundland has rarely been a happy one. The Beothuk, the island’s original inhabitants, were wiped out by the early 1800s after centuries of violent clashes with European fishermen and rival Mi’kmaq bands, as well as the effects of disease. When the province entered Confederation in 1949, premier Joey Smallwood famously declared there were no Natives left in his province. Today the situation is dramatically different.

To finally recognize Newfoundland’s Native population, the federal government invited those who self-identify as Mi’kmaq to apply for membership in a newly created Qalipu First Nation. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt said he expected at most 12,000 applications for this new band. He got more than 100,000, including 46,000 in the final three months of the program. “It was the rush to the golden gate,” the minister said in explaining the last-minute frenzy of declarations claiming Native ancestry.

As a result, nearly one in five Newfoundlanders now purports to be Native. So what explains the Rock’s surprising boom in Aboriginal heritage? And what does it mean for the rest of Canada?

Newfoundland’s Mi’kmaq are not alone in experiencing a perplexing population explosion. Many Aboriginal communities across Canada are growing at rates that cannot be explained by fertility alone. Between 1996 and 2006, for example, the number of Metis has nearly doubled. Similar growth has occurred in the ranks of urban Natives. The cause, according to Statistics Canada, is adults changing their ethnic affiliation on census forms to claim Native ancestry. The statistical agency even has a name for this phenomenon: ethnic mobility.

There are several possible reasons for the ethnic mobility boom in Newfoundland and elsewhere. A revolution in online genealogy may now allow people to investigate their own ancestry and uncover forgotten Native links. Individuals who’ve always known they had a Native background could be prouder in declaring it these days. Or perhaps some unscrupulous non-Natives are trying to avail themselves of the many benefits associated with Indian status.

With an eye to this last possibility, the Harper government is proposing new legislation that would stiffen the requirements for Qalipu membership. Rather than a simply declaring themselves to be Native, all recent applicants will be required to prove a link that pre-dates the original 2008 federal agreement. (However, they need only confirm self-identification prior to 2008 and that they’ve participated in Native events; no blood relationship must be demonstrated.) In addition, Ottawa is giving itself the power to remove applicants who fail the test, even if they’ve already been approved. And it has taken the unusual step of pre-emptively denying compensation for any unsuccessful putative Natives. While the Qalipu leadership supports the changes, other Native representatives are threatening legal action. Newfoundland Liberal MP Gerry Byrne, who’s applied for membership himself, has also loudly denounced the move as unfair.

Yet all taxpayers, regardless of heritage, ought to agree with Ottawa’s efforts to protect the integrity of Native status. As a landless band, membership in Qalipu First Nation will not entail the tax advantages open to status Indians living on-reserve, such as not paying income tax or GST. However, members will still have access to many other benefits, including free post-secondary education. “Band status and associated membership brings with it a range of important benefits under the Indian Act,” Valcourt told a House of Commons committee last month investigating his proposed legislation. It “should not be taken lightly.”

It is an uncomfortable truth in Canada that far too many Natives live in atrocious conditions and face substantially poorer health, education and employment outcomes compared to the rest of the country. There are many reasons for this lamentable situation, ranging from a lack of economic opportunities on-reserve to a legacy of government inaction and misplaced priorities to an absence of proper governance on the reserves themselves. Given all this, federal resources should not be squandered or misplaced on citizens making spurious claims of Native heritage. Ottawa has a clear duty to ensure status is only conferred where an authentic Native connection exists.

That said, however, there may be something hopeful in the broader trend of ethnic mobility. To the extent self-identification doesn’t rob legitimate status Indians of deserved funding, anything that breaks down barriers between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities ought to be seen as a change for the better. The current boom in Canadian Native literature, with authors such as Joseph Boyden and Richard Wagamese enjoying both critical acclaim and commercial success, can similarly be seen as part of an increasing enthusiasm for Aboriginal culture across Canada. Our history and heritage belongs to us all, Native and non-Native alike. We ought to be able to share it.

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