Community Members Answer “Who is Mi’kmaq”?

By: Zabrina Whitman
Policy Analyst, KMKNO

Mi’kmaq identity has been a priority topic for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs and has guided work at Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO).  One of our five foundational pillars is “to revive, promote and protect a healthy Mi’kmaq identity”.  The KMKNO approach to discussing Mi’kmaq identity has been directed by the communities, has asked ‘what cultural components are important for future generations’, and is framed around Mi’kmaw values and responsibilities.

Since 2008, we have engaged community members through community sessions, youth competitions, focus groups and workshops. We have learned a lot over these 9 years, as discussed in previous articles that can be found on our website. Yet, there is still a lot of work to be done and questions that remain unanswered. Starting this month, we are going to provide monthly updates to Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq on the development of an enrollment process. These articles will not only provide information, but will also discuss challenges and will ask questions that need to be answered. We hope that you will give us your feedback and thoughts! Upcoming discussions and questions will focus on language, the difference between terms like “Nation” and “Community”, grandfathering people in, and how to overcome the impacts that the Indian Act has had on our identity and culture.

This month is an overview of how community members, over the last several years, have answered the question ‘who is Mi’kmaq’. We have had many people working on this file and at one point we asked ‘who is a Nova Scotia Beneficiary’ and other times we talked about Mi’kmaq citizenship. The advice we received from community members is that we need to define both words. People felt that the words “beneficiary” and “citizen” can mean different things to different people.

So what is the difference between a “citizen” and a “beneficiary”? Is there a difference? We have heard two main viewpoints from community members; the first being that the Mi’kmaq have always been inclusive and we should not exclude individuals living in our communities. We had continued to hear at community sessions in 2009-10, at regional sessions in 2014 and during focus groups in 2015 that there are intertribal marriages (and out-marriage) and there is an inclusion of those people in Mi’kmaq society; “if you are accepted by the community, you should be a part of it”. At the Nationhood Conference in 2015, individuals said that ‘there are non-Natives in the communities who speak our language and know the culture better than some Mi’kmaw’. There was also a lot of discussion on whether to accept other Aboriginal people as citizens, including Mi’kmaw from other places.

The second viewpoint was that this process should be based on ancestry and how we need to address the problems created by the Indian Act. For example, some of the points made by community members at different sessions from 2009-2015 were:  ‘practicing customs does not make a person Mi’kmaq’, ‘you have to be Mi’kmaq, to be Mi’kmaq’ – meaning you have to have Mi’kmaq ancestry to be considered a Mi’kmaw, and ‘non-Native women who married in are not Mi’kmaq’.

How do we create a process when our community members are expressing two very different, but important views? We examine the intentions behind what is being said. The first viewpoint is really defining citizenship. The concept of citizenship relates to the nation-state, or in our situation, to nationhood. Normally if you are born in a country, you are a citizen of that country. When someone migrates to that nation, after a certain time they can apply for citizenship, usually after passing a test of knowledge and pledging an oath of allegiance. Some places also allow connection through ancestry, like Germany and Israel. Citizenship also means that each citizen has an equal set of rights and responsibilities. An example of a right is the ability to vote in elections; Wartime conscription is an example of a responsibility. The first opinion, provided above by the Mi’kmaq, aligns with this definition.

The second viewpoint is defining Mi’kmaq ethnicity. This is what is referenced in our Treaties. For example, in the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty, it states that the Treaty would apply to “members and delegates of said Tribe, for themselves and their said Tribe their Heirs, and the Heirs of their Heirs forever”. Another word that can be used to describe Mi’kmaq ethnicity is “Heir” or “Beneficiary” – an individual who benefits from Mi’kmaq Rights and Title.

The big difference between an Heir (Beneficiary) and a citizen is that an Heir has an ethnic, familial tie to a Mi’kmaw family and a community/band, whereas a citizen can be naturalized (non-Mi’kmaw). Overall, both processes build and strengthen our collective identity.

Why can’t we just make it all one process? If we look at what community members have said from a procedural perspective, it is clear that even though there are similarities in these two concepts, they are not the same thing. The type of proof that would be required to claim ‘citizenship’ could be flimsy and could allow anyone to apply and get access to Mi’kmaw benefits, like hunting and fishing Rights. This situation has actually happened – the Alonquins of Ontario created their own enrollment process, but the terms were so broad that people who had no connection to the community whatsoever were able to provide proof and get enrolled. They have now created a tribunal to reassess these applications.

After reviewing the information collected from community members, the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Negotiation Team concluded the focus of work at KMKNO needs to be a beneficiary process. This does not undermine the importance of citizenship, but this latter process is more complex and is outside the scope of work under the Made-in-Nova Scotia Process. Citizenship is a component of self-governance and will naturally occur/ be developed when the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia are at that stage.

Next month we will provide you with what community members felt should be the criteria for this enrollment process. These discussions included the importance of family connections, cultural and traditional knowledge, community acceptance, language, and community contributions. Be sure to let us know if there are other topics you want discussed!

We had some great focus group discussions in 2015 and we will continue this work. Some of the discussions will look at language, ancestry/familial connection, culture/ tradition, and the development of an appeals process for applicants. If you are interested in being a part of these focus groups, please contact our office at or by phone at 1-888-803-3880.


This article ran in the June 2016 issue of the Mi’kmaq Maliseet Nations News