The former chair of the Qalipu First Nation enrolment committee says the federal government sought increasing oversight over the membership process as the number of applications for entry into the band climbed higher than expected.
Tom Rideout, who chaired the committee from 2008 to 2012, testified via video as part of a provincial Supreme Court trial challenging a 2013 supplemental agreement between the federal government and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, the organization that led the creation of Qalipu First Nation.
The court challenge, organized by Friends of Qalipu Advocacy Association, is seeking to scrap the 2013 agreement.
Friends of Qalipu lawyer Keith Morgan questioned Rideout, who was premier for a short time in 1989 and held several cabinet positions under former premier Danny Williams.
"Do you believe that the committee you chaired was competent?" Morgan asked.
"I certainly do, yes," Rideout answered.
But according to four letters entered in as evidence, the federal government began questioning the methods of the enrolment committee — eventually demanding oversight over 100 per cent of applications.
Rideout said the federal government initially asked to review 10 per cent the enrolment committee's work.
"I thought that was a reasonable request — up to a point — and we provided files for review," he said.
In a letter dated March 22, 2011, federal counsel Martin Reiher expressed concerns about the strength of the evidence in some applications — though he didn't question enrolment decisions.
"While most of the applicants and the persons providing affidavits are no doubt of good faith, some might not be completely uninterested in relying on vague and non-specific applications," he wrote.
Some affidavits were copied, or didn't include detail. According to Rideout, in those cases, the enrolment committee would request more information from applicants.
According to Rideout, after receiving the letter, the committee tightened up its evaluation of affidavits included in applications.
Once the Qalipu First Nation was officially established in 2011, the number of applications began skyrocketing.
In July 2012, Reiher sent Rideout another letter, this time identifying "deficiencies" in some applications, specifically regarding evidence of connection with Mi'kmaw communities.
"The connection that an applicant must show with a community of the Mi'kmaq Group (sic) has to be significant in quality and quantity; it must be true, profound and not of recent vintage."
Still, Reiher didn't question the enrolment committee's decisions, but instead asked the committee to pay "renewed attention" to the quality of the applications.
All parties — the applicant, the federal government and the FNI — had the ability to appeal the decision of the enrolment committee for 30 days after a decision was made.
"I thought that was adequate protection for everybody concerned," Rideout said.
But in a letter dated Sept. 28, 2012, Rehier asked Rideout to send all future decisions to the Indian Registrar for review because of the increase in the number of applications.
"This new and more fulsome review is in keeping with an enhanced compliance monitoring strategy required by new circumstances," wrote Rehier.
In the letter, Rehier said representatives from the FNI did not object to the request.
Rideout said he believed the request would stretch the independence of the committee.
"I was reluctant to go further than 10 per cent. If you don't like our decisions appeal them, was my view," he said.
The enrolment committee disbanded at the end of 2012; about 23,000 had joined the band but the majority of applications were left unprocessed. A letter dated Dec. 21, 2012 directed the committee to send all applications to the federal Indian Registrar.
In 2013, the federal government and the FNI reached a supplemental agreement which modified the original membership criteria, introducing a complex point system for applicants who lived outside designated Mi'kmaw communities.
All applicants — including those who had already been enrolled — were assessed under the new system.
In the end, 10,391 founding members were booted out of the band, said Morgan.
Rideout, who was no longer involved in the process after 2012, said he doesn't know why so many were rejected.
"I have no way of explaining," Rideout said.
The lawyers representing the FNI and federal government declined to cross-examine Rideout. The trial is set to resume Monday.
Read the letters sent to the chair of the Qalipu First Nation enrolment committee chair