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Confederation anniversary is no cause to celebrate, says Mi’kmaw elder

April 1, 2024

Mi’kmaq of Newfoundland were not recognized nor acknowledged in Terms of Union with Canada

As Indigneous elder wears a fur hat
Calvin White is a Mi’kmaw elder from Flat Bay in western Newfoundland. He says Confederation is not something he will be celebrating. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

CBC Indigenous: As Newfoundland and Labrador marks 75 years since it joined Canada, a Mi’kmaw elder who led the struggle for the recognition of Mi’kmaw people in the province says he won’t be celebrating the anniversary of Confederation.

“There’s nothing really for me to celebrate. There’s nothing for me to be excited about. We still have unfinished business,” said Calvin White, a founder of the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, which later became the Federation of Newfoundland Indians.

White took the group’s legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in a case that ultimately led to the creation of the Qalipu First Nation in 2011.

In an interview with CBC News, White said the Terms of Union in 1949 did not acknowledge the surviving Indigenous peoples who had lived on the island or Labrador for centuries, including Mi’kmaq, Innu, and Inuit.

White said recognition at the time of Confederation would have acknowledged that Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador have the same rights under the Constitution as First Nations people, Inuit, and Métis in other parts of the country.

Instead, said White, Mi’kmaw culture and language were suppressed and all but eradicated.

Just as damaging, said White, was the fact that generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were led to believe that there were no Indigenous people on the island.

White said that historical wrong has not yet been corrected, so the 75th anniversary of Confederation is a reminder of the work not done.

Left out

It is impossible to know for certain why Mi’kmaq and their Indigenous rights weren’t acknowledged in the documents that sealed Newfoundland and Labrador’s entry into Canada, but White said he doubts much effort was made to get accurate information in that regard.

Pre-Confederation census data from Newfoundland show that there were families identifying as Mi’kmaq (Indian) prior to 1949.

White said provincial and federal bureaucrats and elected officials could certainly have accessed that information, but they either did not do that, or they chose to ignore it.

“Why Joey Smallwood would have suggested that there are no Aboriginal people on the island of Newfoundland, that’s a question that we’ll never get the answer for,” said White.

A man stands near the ocean
Calvin White says we will never know why Joey Smallwood didn’t acknowledge Indigenous people during Confederation. (Nic Meloney/CBC)
Lasting impact

What is certain is that the omission led to an inaccurate picture of the make-up of the population of Canada’s newest province, denying the very existence of Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland and having a lasting impact on Mi’kmaq themselves as well as on public perception of any effort to assert Indigenous identity for decades to come.

“It offered one of the greatest challenges that I could ever think about,” said White, who was just six years old at the time of Confederation, and who remembers little if anything about the change of national governance from St. John’s to Ottawa — one location equally as remote as the other from the vantage point of his small community of Flat Bay in southwestern Newfoundland.

White said making a case for recognition by Ottawa not only required Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland to go up against federal and provincial governments who did not acknowledge that Mi’kmaq had lived on the island of Newfoundland for generations, but it also brought about a battle in the court of public opinion.

“We were up against the denial of the general public, because they had been educated for a number of years that there were no Indian people in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said White.

“We were accused of being jokesters,” he said.

But White said the naysayers weren’t just located in this province, as the lack of acceptance of Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland led to a lack of acceptance in Canada as a whole.

“There are thousands of people in this country who still don’t believe that we’re legitimate, because of the neglect of the Terms of Union in 1949,” said White.

Gain and loss

White acknowledges that Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland in 1949 benefited along with other residents from social programs like the family allowance and old age pension.

But White laments what has not yet been recognized for most Mi’kmaq in the province, such as the rights to land and to subsistence activities like hunting and fishing. 

White said he believes recognition of Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland at the time of Confederation would have led to more Indigenous entrepreneurs, joint partnerships between Mi’kmaq and industry, and better protection of resources over the past 75 years.

This is our territory. This is our land.- Calvin White, Mi’kmaw elder

“Instead, what we had is the raping of resources which had an effect not only on the Aboriginal people but it affected Newfoundlanders in general,” said White. He said industries developed based solely on resource extraction, but without an eye to remediation, restoration and profit-sharing.

“There’s great potential there. However, [there’s] very little opportunity for Aboriginal people to be full partners on a territory that has been used and occupied pre-European contact,” said White. “This is our territory. This is our land.”

An older man wearing a fedora and a vest with Indigenous patterns stands in front of a microphone.
Calvin White says it may take another battle in the Supreme Court for him to celebrate Confederation. (Alex Kennedy/CBC)
Looking ahead

White said he believes the federal government has a responsibility and a Constitutional obligation to provide more than just the education and health benefits of which members of the Qalipu First Nation are able to avail, although White acknowledges that those have been a tremendous help to many people.

If you ask White if he’s finished the work of righting the wrong he believes was done to Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland in 1949, his answer is an immediate and resounding “No.”

But, at 80 years old, White said he can no longer “be a warrior” in the continuing fight, with all the organizing and travelling that would require. However, he said he takes advantage of every opportunity to educate people, especially youth.

“I hope that there are other warriors out there who will take on the challenges, and do what needs to be done,” said White.

He said it may take another legal battle before the Supreme Court of Canada, or an appeal under provisions that provide for the rights of Indigenous peoples in order to bring about what he envisions justice for Mi’kmaq to be.

“And when that happens, we’ll be able to celebrate Confederation,” said White.


Bernice Hillier, Radio host

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador. She has also worked at CBC in Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor, & Iqaluit. You can reach her at: