The long-simmering fight over membership in Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation is entering a new chapter Monday, as a group of people rejected in a controversial enrolment process head to court.
The Friends of Qalipu Advocacy Association is challenging a 2013 supplemental agreement between the federal government and the organization that founded Qalipu First Nation, the Federation of Newfoundland Indians.
That agreement established a points-based system for deciding membership in Qalipu First Nation, leading to the rejection of thousands of applications.
Greg Janes was once a member of Qalipu First Nation, but his membership was revoked because of the 2013 agreement. He says the court challenge marks a pivotal moment in a years-long battle.
"This is about recognition," he told CBC News. "This is about the true recognition of fairness, really, to be treated equally amongst your brothers and sisters."
The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador has blocked off three weeks for the case, which will have six plaintiffs: Shawn Benoit, Matthew Anderson, Bobbie Tapp Goosney, Paul Bennett, Jennifer Sur Le Roux and Marie Melanson.
They'll be representing thousands of people whose membership in Qalipu First Nation was revoked.
Janes, a correspondent for the Mi'kmaq Matters podcast, said he's feeling hopeful.
"We want to see a fair slate across the board that would treat everyone the same," he said.
Qalipu First Nation, which includes Mi'kmaq from across Newfoundland, is one of the largest First Nation bands in Canada.
When asked last week for comment on the case, Qalipu First Nation declined.
A long history
When Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, Mi'kmaw communities were not recognized as First Nations under the Indian Act, and the Indian Status of their members was left undetermined.
In 1972, a group of Mi'kmaw communities banded together to form the Federation of Newfoundland Indians. Years of litigation and negotiations followed, finally ending in 2008 when the federal government and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians entered into an agreement in principle to form Qalipu First Nation.
The 2008 agreement established a membership enrolment process and committee; membership criteria included being a member or descendant of a pre-Confederation Mi'kmaw community, among other items.
Qalipu First Nation and federal officials expected about 20,000 people to apply for membership in the new band.
That isn't what happened.
Over the next few years, more than 104,000 people across Canada applied for membership in Qalipu First Nation — a number that represented more than one-fifth of Newfoundland and Labrador's population at the time.
In order to deal with the overwhelming number of applicants, the federal government and Federation of Newfoundland Indians came up with a supplemental agreement in 2013.
That agreement retroactively changed the enrolment process, and established a points system for applicants who didn't reside in one of 67 approved Mi'kmaw communities. Those applicants had to provide evidence that they met criteria under five sections, including — controversially — maintenance of Mi'kmaw culture and way of life.
In February 2017, membership decisions were mailed out; only 18,044 applications were approved. Thousands of founding members of Qalipu First Nation had their status revoked.
Back to 2008
Late last year, Qalipu band members voted to allow some RCMP officers, Canadian Rangers, members of the military and veterans to reapply for membership — but the vote doesn't apply to most of the people represented by the Friends of Qalipu.
Helen Darrington, one of the organizers of Friends of Qalipu, said the group's goal is to get rid of the point system established in 2013 and go back to the rules agreed upon in 2008.
"If nobody challenges it, we'll never know. They'll get away with it. They'll get away with what is blatantly oppression of the people," she said.