By JAYMIE L. WHITE
BAY ST. GEORGE – On Thursday evening, Sept. 23, a panel discussion was put together by Mi’kmaq Matters entitled ‘The Troubled Relationship Between Bay St. George and Qalipu’ at the Stephenville Lions Club. The point of the discussion was to have an open dialogue regarding the connection between the Mi’kmaq people in the Bay St. George area and Qalipu First Nation.
Moderating the discussion was Glen Wheeler, and the panel consisted of Stephenville Mayor Tom Rose, Western Vice-Chief of Qalipu candidate Jenny Brake, Chief of Qalipu candidate Peggy White, and Kippens Mayor Debbie Brake-Patton.
The panel was separated into four sections to answer two distinct questions: Does it have to be this way? What do people want from Qalipu and can they deliver?
Section one brought up the topic of culture. Mayor Debbie-Brake Patton said over 45 per cent of Kippens identifies as Indigenous and it is only recently that the Indigenous culture has been openly celebrated.
“I can say from a child growing up, it was a natural progression from silence to being able to speak about it and then being proud to talk about it,” shared Brake-Patton.
Brake-Patton also discussed the issue that was raised when members of the same family are not all recognized by the Qalipu band.
“Everybody is suffering. It’s not just Kippens. Everybody on this island has suffered that and it’s going to be tough to change,” said Brake-Patton.
Glen Wheeler then asked the panel of whether land claims and pursuing hunting and fishing rights would make members of Qalipu feel more connected to their Indigenous roots. Mayor Tom Rose said establishing rights is important and needs to happen, but the resources must also be properly managed, a skill the Indigenous people have in abundance.
“In the early days of Indigenous habitation on the continent, they actually managed their species. They took fish eggs from one stream that was producing really well and transferred them to another stream. Sometimes they set fires to valleys to make it more fertile and draw more animals in,” said Rose.
Peggy White said investing into Mi’kmaq communities needs to be paramount.
“We have quite a few Mi’kmaq communities that have been there forever. It’s those communities that sit on that land that make the connection,” said White.
The panel then observed the fact that many communities in the Bay St. George region canceled their Canada Day celebrations to mourn the deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools in Canada, and that Corner Brook, where the Qalipu office is located, did not.
“It was the best decision we ever made,” said Mayor Brake-Patton, regarding her decision to cancel the Canada Day activities in Kippens.
Jenny Brake said she was disappointed by the decision made in Corner Brook.
“It was a big conflict for me that day because, even though Corner Brook is the center, the office for Qalipu, I do quite often come to this region for my culture and to feel at home with my Mi’kmaq community.”
Section two focused on the topic of health in the Indigenous community. Peggy White was the first to speak on this topic and stated that the opioid epidemic isn’t the only issue causing problems in Indigenous communities.
“It’s more than just the drugs; it’s the whole malaise and sadness from watching communities die, your children are gone, your grand-children are gone. Schools are, in some places, down to under 100 children,” said White. “All of those things play into effect. It’s affecting mental health on an enormous scale.”
White also mentioned that she has submitted a proposal for a 60-day treatment center for addictions and mental health to give the Indigenous communities the right tools to move forward in a positive way.
“You can’t repair dignity and self-worth in 21 days. It just doesn’t happen. You need a long-term facility, and you need to move people into a safe environment when they get out.”
Mayor Brake-Patton believes that insured benefits through Qalipu not covering holistic approaches to medicine but instead offering coverage for pain management drugs like opioids has ‘created a monster’.
“They haven’t even scratched the surface of what the problem is and how to deal with it,” said Brake-Patton.
Mayor Rose said that the Town of Stephenville is making necessary advancements to ensure that Indigenous people in the region feel recognized.
“Mental health is at a pandemic level in this region,” said Rose.
Peggy White said that Qalipu needs to use its resources to make the necessary changes and help the members of the community now.
The third section of the night focused on the economy. First mentioned was the 50 acres of land that has gone to the Dymond Group of Companies that recently purchased Stephenville Airport. That land was originally offered to Qalipu for an urban reserve, which didn’t happen.
“I think it was a missed opportunity,” said Rose. “They call it risky business because there is no guarantee. You’ve got to be a risk-taker to be an entrepreneur, but this was very low-risk.”
Also noted was the fact that there are many rural communities who have to travel to a more urban center in order to get cell service.
“You’re almost cut off from the world. You’re cut off from the band,” said Peggy White. “It’s a safety issue at this point. You don’t even get the basic, fundamental information you need for day-to-day living when you’re cut off like that.”
Qalipu was the final section to cap off the night, and the discussion moved to problems within the organization itself.
Jenny Brake said they have adopted a system that doesn’t reflect the Indigenous culture and communities they are supposed to represent.
“I feel this huge disconnect from outside the brick walls,” said Brake. “When I worked there, I sensed the hierarchy right away. It didn’t feel like a community building at all.”
Brake said she believes the current structure of the organization follows a colonial way of thinking and people need to stand up for the change they wish to see.
“If the people running for the current council have the same passion for our culture, then they need to be brave enough to go in there and shake it up,” said Brake. “With our own Indigenous community the doors are locked. We don’t go in feeling like we’re welcome and that it’s a part of our own community. It’s just this cold, stale, organization. There’s a lot of work there to be done.”
Mayor Rose advised that those elected to Qalipu need to look at the current pyramid structure and aim to flatten it out.
“You’ve got to empower branches and divisions. You’ve got to make decisions. Not everybody makes the right decision, but that’s okay. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You can’t only allow it all to flow to the top for a final decision before it flows back down,” said Rose.
Peggy White said if communities themselves are unable to be represented with Qalipu, then no one will ever truly be satisfied.
“They need to have a voice. It would be much more advantageous for Qalipu if those voices were at the table and they could hear what those communities actually need,” said White.
The evening ended with a 35-minute question and answer period which brought up a range of topics from accessibility, enrollment, and major issues for Qalipu that need to be addressed from people who are experiencing them firsthand.