DARTMOUTH, NS – An 11-day hunger strike came to an end Monday at the Ramada Inn in Dartmouth as Shelley Young of Eskasoni First Nation and Jean Sock of Elsapogtog First Nation took a few bites of mushroom lentil soup. The pair had been surviving on water and medicine since March 1, in an effort to get the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs – as represented in the negotiating process by technical and legal staff known as the KMKNO – to withdraw from the 'Made in Nova Scotia' process.
The Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office, or KMKNO, is, according to the Mi'kmaq Rights Initiative website, an “Initiative ... led by a team of negotiators, researchers and Mi'kmaq advisors ... [who] work on behalf of the Chiefs and Councils from all 13 Mi'kmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia to address the historic and current imbalances in the relationship between Mi'kmaq and non-Mi'kmaq people in Nova Scotia and secure the basis for an improved quality of Mi'kmaq life.”
While the chiefs did not opt out of the 'Made in Nova Scotia' process entirely, which was the initial demand made by Young and Sock, they did agree to halt the negotiations until their communities can become better educated as to exactly what is at stake. At the end of the meeting every chief signed a declaration stating as much, which also included a caveat that guarantees that Idle No More organizers will: “be notified and required at each KMKNO information session pertaining to the Made In Nova Scotia Process.” The declaration was notarized later in the afternoon.
A hunger strike, by any measure, is a drastic action. Young, Sock and the continuous procession of supporters who visited them during their stay at the Porcupine Lodge on Millbrook First Nation believed that the Made in Nova Scotia process was enough of a direct threat to the Peace and Friendship Treaties that bind the Crown and the Mi'kmaq as sovereign nations to make the strike necessary.
The threat to existing treaties was made all the more real considering that the Made in Nova Scotia process falls under the comprehensive land claims and self-government policy that the federal government has been applying across the country.
Grassroots critics of this federal policy have noted that where negotiations have led to 'modern treaties' being signed, such as in British Columbia, the Yukon, and now potentially with the Algonquin in Ontario, problems have ensued for the Indigenous signatories.
Land title extinguishment in exchange for lump-sum payoffs has created extensive problems arising from debts incurred in the negotiating process, assimilation of both traditional land and Indian status, and, in a pattern that has continued since the first colonial signatory laid pen to paper, the partner known in many circles as the 'Canada Corporation' appears to be unwilling to honour the promises contained in the modern treaties it signs with the First Peoples.
In light of these modern treaty failures, and in homage to the ancestors that provided for the future of the Mi'kmaq Nation through the existing treaties — if only Canada would honour them — Young and Sock took action.
“We know our treaties have sustained our people for over 300 years and that they'll protect our people if we give them the power to,” said Young. “So we felt that if our treaties are compromised through these negotiations that there's no turning back. There's no turning back because these self-government agreements all across Canada have all failed. So all we had to do was look back at these agreements and know that this is not right for us. So we did our research and realized that we had to urge our leaders to step back. And this is why we felt we had to take drastic measures because we definitely didn't want this to move forward, especially without the people's consent.”
Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation, who is also co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, maintained that even though he and the Mi'kmaq chiefs had entered into the comprehensive land claims and self-government policy, and even though the Aboriginal Affairs website identifies the Made in Nova Scotia process as a comprehensive land claim and self-government table, that the Nova Scotia negotiations were unique in the country, and they are neither comprehensive land claims nor self-government negotiations.
Paul said that the federal government's referral to the Made in Nova Scotia process as part of the comprehensive land claims and self-government policies might be due to the clerical error of a “new fella” at Aboriginal Affairs.
“Our treaties are the oldest in the country and they're the strongest,” said Paul. “We negotiated with the government for a very long time – many years – indicating to them that we were not interested in entering into the comprehensive claims process as they defined it, according to their policy, because we didn't want to accept loan funding and we didn't want to accept extinguishment. That's why we fought hard to eliminate that from our process. There's no other process that has that in the country except us and we fought hard for that. That's what's so different about our process here. We do not have to follow the comprehensive claims policy or the self-government policy. Our agreement is excluded from that.”
Such a statement is somewhat complicated and, in light of the dearth of information surrounding the Made in Nova Scotia process (Article 41 of the Framework Agreement, for example, notes that unless otherwise agreed to no content from meetings or discussions will be disclosed) it has led to suspicion as to why exactly the chiefs would enter into dialogue in the first place.
Such suspicions have not been assuaged by the release of documents such as the “Assessment of Negotiations,” the Harper government's template by which the progress of the negotiating tables now sitting across Canada is gauged.
Section 3.4 of the Assessment, for example, makes it very clear that “the inherent right of self-government does not include a right of sovereignty in the international law sense, and will not result in sovereign independent Aboriginal nation states.”
Chief Paul again reiterated that this situation does not apply to the Made In Nova Scotia Process, and noted that the Made in Nova Scotia process is in fact an attempt at getting the existing treaties of peace and friendship respected.
“Nobody's pushing us into [the negotiations],” said Paul. “We feel that we need to have a dialogue with both levels of government in order to implement our treaties. In other processes and agreements that have been done they had an agreement where they were following these policies. We didn't. We just held on and we were very adamant that we weren't going to go in any other process. We don't have loan funding and we don't give up any of our rights as a result of an agreement.”
Paul says the perceived threat to the Peace and Friendship treaties is apparently a misunderstanding – albeit one that he is willing to concede is the fault of a poorly executed communication strategy on the part of the Mi'kmaq chiefs.
“We agree that the chiefs failed to adequately consult with the people in the communities,” said Paul. “[This is] part of the reason why Shelley went on her hunger strike. So we resolved a lot of the issues that she had, and the biggest one was not consulting with the communities as well as we should have.”
Community consultations took place over two years, but Paul admits that they were “poorly attended.”
The need for community knowledge, support, acceptability and consent throughout the negotiating process is made clear in sections 4.1 and 4.2 of the 'Assessment of Negotiations'.
Indeed, it is partially thanks to Young and Sock's social media-savvy support staff that the Mi'kmaq chiefs found themselves potentially backed into a corner from which they were legally bound to halt the Made in Nova Scotia process.
As of press time an online petition with 2,903 signatories, which has only been circulating since March 8, noted: “We the undersigned formally do not consent to any agreements or negotiations made between the Mi’kmaq Indian Act Chiefs, the Provincial Government and the Federal Government that are documented by the Tripartite, Made in Nova Scotia Process, Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office and Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative. We have NOT been consulted.”
In any case, it appears that a combination of prayer, direct action, legal acumen and tireless social media finesse has created a situation in which chiefs and grassroots are now going to work together towards the betterment of the Mi'kmaq Nation in Nova Scotia.
Chief Paul, for one, is ready for a brand new communications plan, one in which he and the Mi'kmaq chiefs will be bound to work side by side with organizers of Idle No More – Shelley Young no doubt included.
“All the tools that we can use we'll use,” said Paul. “Even house to house where we sit down for tea with an elder, or a group of people in their own house, we'll do that. We'll have big community meetings. We'll have smaller meetings. We'll go to individuals, where some people don't like going to these meetings. So we'll make sure that we contact everybody that we need to in order to make sure that they have an opportunity to find out what we're doing here ... [and] after these meetings we'll decide whether the community wants us to continue with the KMK process.”
“Good has come from this even though it was such a hard situation,” agreed Young. “People have awakened, and it's the first time – and this process has been going on for 14 years – that there's light on it.”
Of course, the battle for awareness of the comprehensive land claim and self-government policies in traditional Mi'kma'ki territory does not stop in Nova Scotia.
While the two chiefs representing Prince Edward Island have indicated that they will be withdrawing from their respective negotiating processes, there are currently negotiating tables ongoing in New Brunswick and the Gaspe (albeit at earlier stages of the process).
“I'm very happy with the outcome here [for] Nova Scotia,” said Jean Sock, of Elsapogtog First Nation, in New Brunswick. “Now I've got to go back to my community in New Brunswick. I think down there we can deal with it in a [similar] way, because there are chiefs working down there with us in Idle No More.
“I'm satisfied with the halt [to the Made in Nova Scotia process]. I'm pleased with that because they'll be able to go to the community now, to the people. They're leaving it up to the people for what their wishes are for: if they want to opt out or not. And that's a big step for the chiefs to do that and it satisfies me right out. It opens up and makes me happy in my heart. I'm very happy with that.”