The Rights of the Mi’kmaq

By: Zabrina Whitman, KMKNO Policy Analyst

Despite being one of the first tribes to have contact with Europeans, our culture and people have survived. The Mi’kmaq are resilient people that stand strong and hold onto our beliefs and to protect our Rights.

We are also the most unique Indigenous peoples in Canada, in terms of the negotiation process we have established. Our Peace and Friendship Treaties are different from all other historic Treaties. We have never ceded Rights or Title to the lands of Mi’kma’ki. This is monumental! We are the sole tribe in Nova Scotia and while yes, there is now many people from different Aboriginal Nations living here, the Mi’kmaq are the only ones who can claim to be the original peoples of this land. Around the world when new people have moved into their lands, original peoples have often been assimilated into the dominant culture. This is not the case in Nova Scotia. This is what makes the negotiation process here so different and so exciting.

In 1999 the Marshall Decision finally recognized our Rights as affirmed in the Peace and Friendship Treaties. However, recognition of Rights is not the same as implementation of Rights. We are not the sole people living in Nova Scotia anymore. What does that change? It means we have to discuss how we can implement our Rights, while sharing this land with other groups of people. But more important than this is we have to discuss, amongst ourselves, how implementation of our Treaty Rights would work. Should there be rules and guidelines that all Mi’kmaq must follow to ensure traditional concepts, like Netukulimk are at the center of our actions? Should we have management plans in place? While people may be fearful that their Rights are being sold, or that KMKNO is negotiating a modern Treaty, this is not the case. So what are we doing?

As the original people of Mi’kma’ki, we are the caretakers of the lands and resources. As Mi’kmaq, we must ensure that it is cared for and protected. It is important that we work to develop our own processes as a collective to ensure that everyone is using our resources responsibly today and making sure they are also available for future generations. KMKNO’s role is to help the Mi’kmaq figure out how we can benefit from our historic Treaties today.

We have heard complaints that the negotiation process is slow. But, we ask, isn’t it important that these discussions aren’t rushed? The Marshall Decision put our Treaty discussions on the forefront. That decision came down in 1999, and the Framework Agreement – which outlines the negotiation process – was signed in 2007. A lot of effort went into designing a Process that would meet the needs of the Mi’kmaq; A Process that would ensure that our Treaties and Rights were protected; A Process that would give us – the Mi’kmaq – a say in the things that matter most to us, and a Process where everyone could be involved. Sure it’s been nine years since the Framework Agreement has been signed but your Negotiation Team does not want to rush the discussions. They want to be sure that it’s done right.

There are over 15,000 Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw. The Framework Agreement, also called the Made-in-Nova Scotia Process, requires inclusion of all 15,000 people on every single issue to be decided; that requires a lot of time. While you may feel like you’re tired of waiting for this process to be complete, or maybe you’re fearful that decisions will be made without your input. Either way, this is not the type of situation where we should be hurried. What the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs want, and what your Negotiation Team wants, and what researchers, technicians and support staff at KMKNO want is to know what the Mi’kmaq want.

The vision for the Made-in-Nova Scotia Process remains that it is to ensure that Mi’kmaq culture and traditions are at the heart of decision-making. It is not about taking whatever the government offers us, it is about ensuring that we are recognized as a Nation and that whatever is negotiated for the implementation of our Treaties will truly work for all our people.

It has taken us years to get a process of engagement even an option. And it will likely take bit longer for all Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq to discuss and determine how to implement our Rights. This requires a strong communications plan and the creation of a process for decision-making. Over the last three years we have been focussed on developing these processes and plans.

Since 2008, we have been asking the question “who is Mi’kmaq?”, and we reviewed all the information collected from community members. It’s now time for us to report back to everyone on that information and ask you for direction moving forward.

Another comment often heard is that Mi’kma’ki includes Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec and Maine – so why is this negotiation process excluding these regions? This illustrates the unity we have as a Nation. Due to the nature of how negotiations work in Canada, we are limited to negotiating province-by-province. That does not mean that we aren’t working together. We have regular conversations between Negotiation Tables across Mi’kma’ki. More than that, in Nova Scotia, we include the Grand Council in the process, so that all districts are represented and have a voice. We don’t overlook this broader perspective of Nationhood, and we share your concerns. As our Mi’kmaq Advisor, Joe B. Marshall has said, “we have to start somewhere”. Nova Scotia is that starting point.

Some have suggested negotiating band-by-band. While that is certainly an option, what might that mean for our collective Rights? Could that approach contradict the importance of unity, nationhood and representing all Mi’kmaq? From a procedural aspect, though doable, it would also be challenging. The Made-in-Nova Scotia Process examines issues like harvesting, protection of traditional cultural and spiritual areas, and access to resources. Knowing our history and connection to all the lands in Mi’kma’ki, how might it change things if only people from certain bands could access resources in certain areas? This would overlook the fact that the Mi’kmaq have always, and will continue to access resources across the whole province. Further, the band-by-band approach supports the Indian Act – basing decisions around individual bands, when the Made-in-Nova Scotia Process is outside that concept, basing rights around the collective. The Made-in-Nova Scotia Process is not about impacting the services bands receive from the government, but is a process that runs parallel – it takes a Province-wide approach on issues that jointly affect us all.

Lastly, some people ask why we can’t just go back to court? Going to court for every issue is costly, but the risk is much greater than that. In the court system, the justices determine how our Rights will be implemented. Unless a Supreme Court Justice is Mi’kmaw, they cannot understand our cultures, traditions and ways. By going to the courts, we are letting others tell us how they think our Rights should be implemented, and because they lay the law, we would have to follow that direction.

The Made-in-Nova Scotia Process is different, there is nothing like it. It is a negotiation process for an entire nation of people. Effective communication with such a large population is challenging, and is something we are continuously working to make better. Your Negotiation Team takes their role to be at the table with government and to ensure that our Rights and Treaties are protected, very seriously. They are our advocates and are unwilling to rush, to take the government’s perspective, or take the easy way. We recognize that doing this right will be a slow process, and we recognize there will be challenges, yet we have something to be proud of – we are Mi’kmaw, we have a process that will be what we want and our Treaties will never be surrendered and keep our strong Mi’kmaq culture forever. It’s time to make things right!