As a country, Canada is just beginning to comes to grips with its responsibilities for and debts to the indigenous peoples within her borders. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) revealed in relentless, horrifying detail, the treatment received by indigenous peoples through first-voice testimony and historic documentation (including the government’s own 200 year-plus cache of damning documents). You can find the report at trc.ca. I was one of the United Church “listeners” in the “Church Listening Tent” during the Halifax round of TRC gatherings. Our role was to offer a place of rest, nourishment and to simply listen, if that was asked for. We also had one of three apologies that we were to read if requested. Two were United Church apologies (1986 and 1998) and the other was the apology made by the Canadian Government in 2008. When I was not doing a shift in the tent, I explored the displays and listened to testimony. I remain shaken to my core.
I liken it to the experience of the German townspeople who lived next to concentration camps during the war, who were forced to parade through the camps by the Allies so they could fully appreciate the horrors of what they chose to ignore. What grew within me during that experience was, first and foremost, a deep gratitude and appreciation for the grace and resiliency of indigenous peoples as they agree to the reconciliation journey. Also, a personal and professional commitment began to grow to support the recommendations of the final TRC report which was accepted by all political parties. First among them, is a commitment to acknowledge the Treaty status of the land we live or travel on. That is why this page is part of this blog. This particular commitment proves to be complicated in the case of Newfoundland.
First of all, Newfoundland was a British Colony until the very late date of 1949. So, her “Canadian” history is relatively new. If the story of Canada’s relationship with indigenous peoples contains tragedy and horror, Newfoundland’s story is particularly awful because it involves the true extinction of a distinct people, the Beothuk. The Newfoundland government website says:
The Beothuk were the aboriginal inhabitants of the island of Newfoundland. They were Algonkian-speaking hunter-gatherers who once occupied most of the island. As a result of a complex mix of factors, the Beothuk became extinct in 1829 when Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John’s.
Wikipedia is a little more detailed, stating that violent pressure from settlers and an influx of other aboriginal peoples combined with a lack of food sources, an explosion of infectious diseases and constant movement toward the interior land which could not sustain life. Whether active and intentional genocide occurred is still greatly debated by academics. There can be no denial that there are some heartbreaking historical stories of the “hunting” of Beothuks.
The Mi’kmaw, originating from lands off island, have also traditionally travelled, hunted and gathered throughout Newfoundland island. Miawpukek is at Conne River. A community’s words about themselves are always most important and usually the most accurate. The following is an excerpt from their website (http://www.mfngov.ca/about-miawpukek/):
Miawpukek is the traditional Mi’kmaw name for our community. “Miawpukek” is used as the name of the community in most documents produced by Miawpukek First Nation Government. Documents produced elsewhere most often uses “Conne River”. The name means “Middle River”.
Miawpukek became a permanent community sometime around 1822. Before 1822 it was one of many semi-permanent camping sites used by our people who were at the time still nomadic and traveling throughout our Mi’kmaq Domain of Newfoundland, Labrador, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Maine.
Miawpukek Reserve was established according to traditional oral history in 1870. It was officially designated as Samiajij Miawpukek Indian Reserve under the Indian Act in 1987. Most of our members, as of June 1985, are registered Indians. The ancestries of our community members include Mi’kmaq, Innu, Abenaki and European lines.
Our membership is 787 on-Reserve and 1779 off-Reserve. Our total population on Reserve as of August, 2006 is 867. (787 Native and (approx.) 80 non-Native).
Since being established as a reserve in 1987, Miawpukek has gone from a poor, isolated community with almost 90% unemployment to a strong vibrant community with nearly 100% full time/part-time employment. We are one of two of the fastest growing communities in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. We are often pointed to by Indian and Northern Affairs as a model community for other First Nations.
We are located on the south coast of the island part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. By land we are 224 km from the nearest service center, the international airport town of Gander. Our community is accessible by land, air and water.
“Wave Sound” sculpture by Anishinabe artist Rebecca Belmore