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St George's Bay Mi'kmaq

Nfld. Mi'kmaq to file class-action lawsuit



ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. (CP) Mi'kmaq in Newfoundland who say they've been wrongfully denied status as native Canadians since the province joined Confederation are poised to file a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa and the provincial government.

The lawsuit will seek compensation as well as legal status for up to 20,000 Mi'kmaq, said Bert Alexander, one of the plaintiffs and head of the self-proclaimed Alliance Indian band.

"We are a forgotten people," Alexander said today. But "we are not going away."

Alexander said he was pleased with a provincial royal commission that urged the government yesterday to give the Mi'kmaq access federal aboriginal programs and services.

The report by the Royal Commission on Renewing and Strengthening Our Place in Canada said aboriginal people in the province were omitted from the Terms of Union when the province joined Canada in 1949.

As a result, the Mi'kmaq as well as the Inuit and the Innu of Labrador were not given status under the federal Indian Act.

"This resulted in the federal government effectively failing to carry out the constitutional and fiduciary responsibilities that it had accepted for aboriginal people in other parts of Canada," the commission concluded.

In recent years, the Inuit and Innu have received that recognition from the federal Indian Affairs Department.

And in 1984, the department recognized the Mi'kmaq people in Conne River, about 300 kilometres west of St. John's, and registered a reserve in that community.

But thousands of other Newfoundland natives were left out those deals, said Alexander, 60.

"Our people are still trying to join Canada," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Kippens, on the west coast of Newfoundland.

Alexander said the commission's recommendation would be a step in the right direction, but he wasn't hopeful Ottawa would follow through.

"If we have to rely on the court process we're prepared to do it," he said.

The lawsuit will seek reserve land for those bands that want it.

No one from the Indian Affairs Department was immediately available for comment today.

On the Port au Port peninsula, a spit of land that juts from Newfoundland's west coast, there can be little doubt about the ancestry of many residents.

Jasen Benwah said he grew up knowing he was Mi'kmaq.

"But people didn't dwell on it because it just wasn't a good thing to be native," said Benwah, who now lives in nearby Stephenville.

Now he wants his children to know who they are.

"It's important because it's something that's been denied us all these years," Benwah, 38, said in a recent interview.

It's unclear how long the Mi'kmaq people have been in Newfoundland, said Adrian Tanner, an anthropologist at Memorial University.

The Beothuk, who were among the island's original inhabitants, were slaughtered by European settlers and succumbed to diseases to which they had no natural resistance.

The last known Beothuk, Shawnadithit, died in St. John's in 1829.

Like the Beothuk, the Mi'kmaq inhabited Newfoundland before the island became a British colony, Tanner said.

"As far as I know, the government doesn't deny that they are people of aboriginal descent," Tanner said in a recent interview.

Their legal status, or lack of it, is based on political reasons, he said.

"Even compared to the rest of Canada, the treatment of aboriginal people in this province is particularly shocking," said Tanner.

The Federation of Newfoundland Indians receives nearly $2 million a year in funding for various programs.

But with status, the province's native people would have access to health and education programs that are currently unavailable.

Tax-exempt status does not apply to natives living off reserves and establishing reserves is not a priority, said Brendan Sheppard, head of the federation.

"We're simply looking for status," said Sheppard, whose organization has had a separate case before the courts since 1989.

That case has yet to be heard as the federation continues negotiations with Ottawa.

Sheppard said he expects an agreement within the next year.

But Alexander isn't willing to wait.

All the gains made by aboriginal people in Canada have come from protests or the courts, he said.

"We will do whatever we have to do to gain equality."

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Copyright 2003 Jasen Sylvester Benwah