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A common thread for successful Indigenous communities found in Atlantic Canada is their people. In places where development is booming, impassioned teams are working to create a better path forward. But leaders caution that both renewal and reconciliation take time.
Connecting the dots
Dan Christmas is looking toward a brighter future.
The country’s first Mi’kmaw senator has witnessed the renewal of several Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada, including his own.
It was only a quarter century ago when Membertou First Nation in Cape Breton was headed toward bankruptcy.
“Very few people were working, even fewer people had businesses,” said Christmas. “We were going nowhere fast.
“Maybe it was because of crisis — we almost had no choice — we had to turn things around.”
Back in 1994, Membertou was solely reliant on federal transfer dollars.
It’s a tale all too familiar for Indigenous communities caught in the same cycle.
3.1 PER CENT
The number of Indigenous people who could speak an Indigenous language has grown by 3.1 per cent in the last decade.
Christmas said the dependency correlates to the 1876 Indian Act, which took control over first peoples’ destinies and was designed to extinguish their tribal way of life.
As part of its own legacy, Membertou was the country’s first aboriginal community to be forcefully moved by court order when 120 residents were relocated from the Kings Road Reserve to make way for urban development.
“There was no incentive to change, or to grow, or really create new opportunities,” Christmas said of the federal legislation.
“It was just a horrible piece of Canadian history that we lived through and now we’re breaking away from those chains.”
Prior to Membertou’s renewal, Christmas was among a group of professionals who’d moved away for employment, only to be recruited back by Chief Terry Paul and his council.
“For us in Membertou, it was all about building our own prosperities, building our own businesses, and creating our own employment,” he said.
“We knew what it’s struggles were and because our families were there, and our relatives were there, it wasn’t just a job. It was just incredible passion in trying to change things around.”
Christmas, who served as Membertou’s senior advisor, said the rebuild began with a slashing of spending and creating efficiencies.
The Mi’kmaw community boosted its profile by opening a corporate office in Halifax, and formed profit-making partnerships across a variety of industries.
Since 2006, the country’s Indigenous population grew by 42.5 per cent, which is more than four times faster than the rest of the population.
By roughly the year 2000, Christmas said Membertou had eliminated its debt. Soon after, the community opened a gaming centre and began using its revenues to assist in the creation of other businesses and capital investments.
Before its renewal, Membertou had 37 employees, operated under a $4-million budget and carried with it a $1-million annual operating deficit.
Things are much different now.
For the 2018-fiscal year, the band generated $$67-million in revenues, carried forth an annual surplus of $2 million and employed nearly 550 workers.
Its financial statements show that only 27.5 per cent of its previous budget were derived from federal contributions.
“You have individuals who are saying to themselves: ‘We don’t need the federal government; we can generate our own revenues and make our own businesses and begin to employ our own people” said Christmas.
“Our self-determination in Atlantic Canada has been through economic prosperity — it hasn’t been through self-government agreements, or land-claim agreements, or any of those other tools.”
Bolstered by a population boom and increasing education rates, Indigenous leaders feel an optimism for all of Atlantic Canada, not just their own communities.
The average age of the Indigenous population in Canada in 2016 - almost a decade younger than the non–Indigenous population at 40.9 years.
But a key to moving forward will be the implementation of ‘Calls to Action’ outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noted Christmas.
“When things are successful not only do the First Nations share the benefits, but also non-(Indigenous) communities immensely share the benefits as well,” Christmas said. “It becomes a win-win situation.
“The odd thing about that is … the federal government and even the provincial government take a back seat.
“They’re no longer the ones that are driving the dependency. Instead they try to enable success where there’s opportunity and where there’s promise.”
Christmas said he’s now seeing the outcome sought when peace and friendship treaties were signed by his ancestors.
“They envisioned a future of equal partnership … and here we are in 2019 — we are now fulfilling those partnerships and making things better.”
Sky’s the limit for Lennox Island’s shellfish hatchery
Key to good oyster seed is abundant food source
Entering a sun-drenched room at the Bideford River Marine Centre in Lennox Island, PEI, one’s focus is instantly drawn to a bank of clear tanks each filled with liquids of different shades and colours.
That liquid is actually algae in various stages of development, food source for the oyster seed being raised in other tanks throughout the sprawling complex.
“There’s a lot of technical (details) with the algae,” says Dawn Campbell-Sapier, fulltime technician at the hatchery since it was revived in 2016 after sitting idle for several years.
“It’s live organisms. We have to count it; we have to feed it. It’s just like a little baby, too.
“That’s my domain, mostly, the algae,” Campbell-Sapier acknowledges. “It keeps me busy.”
The Lennox Island First Nation now owns the former federal research station facility. The Lennox Island Development Corporation started the process of turning it into a shellfish hatchery in 2016 and it achieved financial success within the first year.
It is the only facility of its kind on Prince Edward Island and it endeavours to provide a steady supply of competitively-priced shellfish seed. So far it’s mainly been oysters and some quahaugs, but there is potential and space to branch out.
“When I first came to the building, there were two tanks. Two tanks and me,” Campbell-Sapier said in reference to tanks being used to grow oyster seed from spat. Now there are 20 such tanks and production continues to increase. “We definitely came a long way.”
A steady food source is critical to the growth of the millions of seed oysters the facility is growing both for the Lennox Island First Nation’s 18-acre off-bottom lease and for commercial sale.
The hatchery now employs six people year-round and Campbell-Sapier is one of two who takes turns monitoring the facility on weekends. “Somebody’s got to be here. If we’re not here, it could be bad. It’s very unpredictable,” she stresses.
With room to grow, Campbell-Sapier thinks the sky’s the limit for Prince Edward Island’s only shellfish hatchery. “It’s good for our community. It’s definitely bringing jobs to our community; it’s bringing money to our community.”
Preserving culture a key to success
Shalyn Ward’s dedication to her culture and community is something few 17-year-olds possess.
A powwow dancer, Ward’s summer weekends are spent traveling the Atlantic Provinces, performing jingle and fancy shawl dances.
Although she started dancing when she was young, Ward took a few years off after turning eight.
But at age 15, the Eel Ground (Natoaganeg) First Nation in New Brunswick resident returned to powwow dancing as a way to stay “spiritually connected to her culture” and as a motivator to stay away from drugs and alcohol, two things she saw some people in her community struggling with.
Ward has started teaching dance to other young girls in her community and is a regular fixture at the Natoaganeg Community Food Centre – a community run food bank and community kitchen – where she has been volunteering since it opened in 2016.
Currently, Ward is the youth culture programming co-ordinator and said her years in Girl Guides (which she still attends and is a Ranger) helped her learn the importance of giving back and community involvement.
The Miramichi Valley High School student is heading into her last year of school and hopes to attend university to study social work when she finishes, using her cultural and post-secondary education to continue to help Indigenous people in need.
Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue has been the voice of her people for decades and advanced many concerns with one fundamental motivation.
“I never give up even when it is very hard,” said Penashue in a phone interview from her Sheshatshiu, Labrador home.
“I want to show government how much we respect the land and our culture, to teach the young children.”
From the effects of military low-level flights out of Goose-Bay on the lands decades ago through to present day and future concerns about the environmental impact of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project and many issues in between, Penashue remains committed.
For more than 20 years, she has led an annual walk — this year she had to cut it short close to the Mealy Mountains due the deep snow and the effect on her knees. But, accompanied by family members, she did complete 10 days of the journey, which started off in Goose Bay.
“I was very happy and even if I didn’t finish, I show my people and the young children not to give up,” she said.
Her work to highlight the concerns of the Innu has been the subject of a book - Marie Wadden's “Nitassinan” and a film, the National Film Board's “Hunters and Bombers.”
In 2006, the nationally and internationally respected elder received a honorary doctor of laws degree at Memorial University.
CHALLENGE: Access to capital
SOLUTION: Building economic prosperity through partnerships
Bob Gloade understands a certain X-factor.
The chief of the flourishing Millbrook First Nation, near Truro, N.S., says having the right team can be one of the biggest drivers of success.
“That’s been the main ingredient that we’ve have. The level of education, the background and experience that each of them brings is vitally important because they’re also business people.”
Gloade, who has a degree in commerce, said Millbrook’s leaders are passionate about seeing their community succeed.
For that reason, commitments are made to projects that will create jobs, benefits and educational supports for band members.
Millbrook’s corporate portfolio is diverse with investments in entertainment, hospitality, aquaculture, commercial leasing and wind energy.
But Gloade said one of its biggest challenges for the Mi’kmaw band has been access to capital.
“There’s always obstacles in every project, with everything that we do,” he said.
“You can only do so much with what you have and that’s an obstacle in itself. Thinking outside the box, being creative and being mindful in how to achieve the end goal has led to our success.”
Gloade says Millbrook has learned to overcome its financial deficits over the years by forming connections with investors, businesses and other governments.
“If there’s a way of doing it by building partnerships and relationships with other entities and other companies — we explore those opportunities, so that’s the way we overcome those challenges.”
CHALLENGE: Barriers to education
SOLUTION: Provide increased student supports
Janice Basque often delivers a push to students who need it the most.
The enrollment specialist at Cape Breton University (CBU) understands the struggles that some face.
After graduating high school in her home community of We'koqma'q First Nation in Cape Breton, Basque completed two university degrees in Sydney. The busy mother is now completing an MBA in community economic development.
Basque understands that some Indigenous students find it daunting to suddenly leave their tight-knit communities.
To encourage increased enrolment, CBU offers its own Mi’kmaw resource centre, a language lab and two elders-in-residence who assist with emotional and academic support.
“We meet them in their communities or in the high schools before they even come, and then we follow them through right up until they’re finished graduation,” Basque said.
“Students are coming out stronger from high school, they’re coming in stronger to post-secondary, and they have that drive.”
Basque noted that a major barrier for students living in Indigenous communities is often transportation.
In recent years, the Membertou and Eskasoni bands have partnered to offer a busing service to the Sydney campus.
CBU itself also offers some classes through in-community programming.
But a growing concern for the Indigenous population is a stagnation in education funding, which means students are facing greater financial pressures than before.
“I’m seeing more students having to take out student loans, or pay for their own courses and such,” Basque said. “It is getting more common.”
So far, specialized programs to encourage Indigenous students to explore health and science careers are already showing results. Basque said the Indigenous post-secondary graduation rates are also steadily increasing.
“That oppressive state, you don’t see it or it’s not as common,” she said. “And they’re proud, they’re motivated, but they need that push, that extra support.”
Message to corporate Canada
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon corporate Canada to lead the change for Indigenous communities by supporting employment, education and Indigenous economic development.
Behind the growth
Two main factors have contributed to the growing Indigenous population: the first is natural growth, which includes increased life expectancy and relatively high fertility rates; the second relates to changes in self-reported identification. Put simply, more people are newly identifying as First Nations, Métis or Inuit on the census — a continuation of a trend over time.