Understanding Family Connections

By: Zabrina Whitman, KMKNO Policy Analyst

One of the pillars of the negotiation process is “to revive, promote and protect a healthy Mi’kmaq identity”. Determining who is a Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw beneficiary is an important and critical topic. Our role at Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office (KMKNO) is to gather information from community members on this issue. Since 2008 we have been engaging with NS Mi’kmaw through community sessions, youth competitions, university visits, information booths at community events, think-tanks, focus groups, webinars and regional sessions. In the last year, we reviewed that information to start to analyze how to build an enrollment process.

Remembering last month’s article, we discussed how community members identified the difference between a “Beneficiary” and a “Citizen, and in closer examination of these community definitions, KMKNO’s focus of work is a beneficiary enrollment process.

Just to recap, a “Beneficiary” (an Heir of the Treaties) has an ethnic, familial tie to a Mi’kmaw family and a community/band, while a “citizen” can be naturalized (non-Mi’kmaw).

This month we will start to dive deeper into how this beneficiary enrollment process may potentially work by examining what community members have proposed as enrollment criteria.

The intent of this month’s article is to summarize what has been said and to start to critically analyze how it can be implemented. This is our first attempt at taking what NS Mi’kmaw have said from a conceptual point and build a working process

All the information gathered from community members can be grouped under five main headings or criteria. Community members said for an individual to meet criteria as a Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Beneficiary, they would need to first demonstrate: familial/ ancestral connection, and then cultural and historic knowledge, language, community acceptance, and community contribution.

Based on the definition provided by Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq on who is an “Heir” or “Beneficiary”, all applicants would first have to demonstrate familial connection before the other four criteria can be assessed – so basically this would be step one of the process. Once a person has passed this step, they then must meet the other four requirements. Community members have been clear that being Mi’kmaq is more than just a name, title, or access to benefits. It includes knowing your culture, your community and family. An enrollment process cannot only look at ancestry and exclude these other factors; these other criteria are fundamental to ensuring the survival and revitalization of Mi’kmaq culture.

Each criterion has a lot of details, so this month’s article will examine the first criterion; following articles will examine the others.

What do we mean by familial or ancestral connection? In Mi’kmaq, it is explained through the concept of Tan Wetipeksin. It is about your relations – who is your family, your roots and who you are related to.

What if you are adopted? In the context of adopted children, community members have explained that as long as a person was raised Mi’kmaq, “blood shouldn’t count”. Kji Keptin Antle Denny furthers this statement in explaining that historically when a Mi’kmaq family adopted children, those children were accepted as part of Mi’kmaq society. This value is one that NS Mi’kmaw has unanimously agreed should be implemented in any NS Mi’kmaq process of identity.

One thing that needs to be considered however is age. Participants at Nationhood 2015 suggested an age limit is needed. This would prevent a loophole of individuals claiming adoption in adulthood only to access benefits. From a theoretical perspective, culture is normally transmitted in childhood so a person’s connection to Mi’kmaq culture will be different if they are brought up in the culture, versus if they become a part of it in adulthood; a cut-off age for adoption of children would also align with sociological arguments.

Another important point brought forward by community is how the Indian Act discriminates against children based on blood quantum and parental gender. Again, community has been clear, in the Mi’kmaq process, an applicant should not have to establish that both parents are Mi’kmaw in order to be eligible. Mi’kmaw want to ensure that children from single-family homes and children where the fathers are not identified on the birth certificate are not discriminated against. This concern has also been raised by UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya and highlighted by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Nationally and internationally, bodies are stating that gender equality must be an incorporated factor in any enrollment process.

Community members have noted that a person should have to establish their lineage to the Treaties. This is may not be possible. In 2008, a researcher named William (“Bill”) Wicken conducted research on the topic of ancestry. He determined that there are few historic records on the NS Mi’kmaq and they date only as far back as the 1830s. So how do we address this issue if we can’t trace lineage through written records all the way to the 1700s and beyond?  Wicken’s response was that “one of the easiest methods is through family names. From the 1830s to the 1920s, there were a relatively small number of family names within the [Nova Scotia] Mi’kmaq community”. Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey and Gerald Gloade have done similar work. We recommend that for the enrollment process, an applicant demonstrate what family or families they have a birth/adoptive connection to.

We have seen in other enrollment processes in Canada people have been able to trace their family lines back hundreds of years to establish their connection even though they have had no current connection to the community or band. It has been very important to community members that applicants have a current connection to their families and communities. We have been asked at KMKNO how we will prevent having manipulation of the NS Mi’kmaq process, and what type of proof would be needed to ensure this check and balance?

This process would not simply be about presenting genealogical records. As Bill Wicken explained, “In examining archival records, we need to remember that Mi’kmaq people were not always clearly identified as aboriginal. For this reason, the researcher needs to pay special attention to names and to recognize that some names more commonly show Mi’kmaq ancestry than others. However, the mere presence of such a ‘Mi’kmaq’ name cannot be interpreted to definitively show Mi’kmaq identity, though in some cases it probably does. For instance, I would argue that such family names are Googoo, Knockwood, and Pictou can always be safely identified as Mi’kmaq. Similar conclusions cannot be made for other names. For instance, Paul is a common family name in Nova Scotia as is Muse. As a result, we need to adopt alternative methods to help us identify people.” With this challenge in mind, we also have a second critical consideration. It is fundamental that this process is based on our culture and revitalizes traditional societal governance structures; this includes the restoration of the traditional role of the family. A common statement made by community members throughout these 9 years is “we know who our people are”. While the Indian Act has fragmented families and created divisions with concepts like “non-status” and “status”, family links still are strong, and there are individuals in every family who know their family history and all the family relations. So how do we ensure that both of these considerations are addressed?

An enrollment committee will need to be established to review applications. While community members have suggested that permanent member seats should include a youth, Elder, Grand Council member and woman, we also recommend that one member seat/role should be for the family. While the logics of how this would work are still to be worked out, and will be discussed in a future article, the basic concept is that multiple people will be appointed as a committee member for the “family member seat”. Let me explain. When a person submits their application, the application will be reviewed by the enrollment committee. In the application process, the applicant would have to identify from the list of family names, which family/families they are connected to. Someone needs to be on the Committee who can speak to that. If interviews are required in the process, the family member can actually ask factual questions to make sure that person is in fact connected to their family.

Under this process we suggest that every single Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq family (e.g. Christmas, Paul, Gloade, Bernard, etc.) identify two people to represent their family. We know that Mi’kmaq families are large and that our families have connections to several NS Mi’kmaw communities. Family members living in Community X can better identify other family members living in Community X than family members living in Community Y. At the same time, as will be discussed in a future article, community acceptance is an important criterion raised by community, and is also a factor in case law. In the application process, a person will have to tie their connection to at least one of the NS Mi’kmaw communities. Therefore, we recommend that each family in each community identify two names – a lead and an alternate. How these individuals are selected will be up to each family in each community – we are trying to reinstill the power of the family unit.

I know there are still a lot of unanswered questions. If the above concept is supported, we still need to go through the family names compiled by Wicken, MK and Gerald Gloade and ensure that no NS Mi’kmaw names are missing. We also have to create procedures if families do not identify names, if an applicant is connected to more than one family and community, and what to do when an applicant does not have a current connection to a family.

Can only people in Nova Scotia apply? Community members at regional sessions in 2014 and from the Acadia Mi’kmaw community discussed in 2010 the importance of inclusion of NS Mi’kmaw living outside the province. Residency is an important issue of discussion and has been addressed differently by different Aboriginal groups across Canada and the United States. Generally speaking, if an individual is of that Nation or community, he or she is an eligible beneficiary, but access to some of the benefits may be dependent on location of residency. We need further guidance from community members on their opinion of this topic.

Also, do we have a cut-off point? Community members have stated there should be a cut-off point of eligibility; some had suggested three, others at seven generations. Others have said no cut-off. This is a difficult subject because it becomes an aspect of blood quantum. Dr. Leanne Simpson has noted at some point when you have been removed from your culture long enough you cannot claim to be a part of that culture. As Dr. Pam Palmater has said, “there is no need to set specific ‘cut-off’ point in terms of descent, because it is the sum total of the applicant’s connections that would be the ultimate determinant of acceptance”. She provides the example that if you had a grandparent or great grandparent who was Mi’kmaw and you have maintained connection to the community, but do not have status because of restrictions under the Indian Act, you should be considered Mi’kmaw. However, if you have always identified with the Acadian culture and find out that seven generations ago you had a Mi’kmaq ancestor, you should not be considered, because it would be solely based on blood quantum – a topic that has been discussed previously by our Citizenship Coordinator.

There are a lot of complex issues we need to discuss in more depth. While we have only looked at one criterion, already we see there are a lot of questions yet to be answered. These topics include a cut off age for adoption, generational cut-off, a review of NS family names and how this process would work, grandfathering people in, and residency.

Before we can even engage in this research further, we need to make sure we are on the right path, and you agree with the discussion to date.  Reach out to us – call, email, ask us to your community or watch for our upcoming community visits. Also, if you want to be a part of a focus group, please contact info@mikmaqrights.com or call 1-888-803-3880.