The federal government has pressed pause on talks to potentially include more members in the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation, a move drawing condemnation from the band's chief.
Brendan Mitchell says the band was caught off guard by a letter he received from Indigenous Services Canada in late March and is questioning Ottawa's explanation.
"We're in shock," said Mitchell.
The letter, which the first nation made public on its website, calls off — at least temporarily — discussions that date back to November 2018, when the two sides announced they would sit down and reconsider some people who were rejected for membership during the band's creation.
Defining Qalipu members has been a contentious and drawn-out process. After the band's establishment in 2008, more than 100,000 membership applications flooded in, triggering a re-evaluation of the process in 2013 that saw some people disqualified and sparking legal fights that have yet to be settled.
That "active litigation" is cited in the Indigenous Services Canada letter as a key reason to suspend talks.
"Direction from the courts will be instructive," the letter states.
Mitchell questioned that logic, saying enrolment battles were before the courts when the federal government discussions began and have remained so. He called Indigenous Services Canada's reasoning "inconsistent" with the last 27 months of talks, and spoke of a loss of good will toward the process.
"We talked about the need to work together in a nation-to-nation relationship. We talked about working together in the true spirit of reconciliation," Mitchell told CBC News on March 31.
"Where has all that gone now in light of what just happened? Flown out the window."
In response to questions from CBC News, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said via a statement that conversations are ongoing.
"We have been working collaboratively with the Federation of Newfoundland Indians to ensure a fair and equitable enrolment process upholding the integrity of founding membership. The creation of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation has been an important step forward for the Mi'kmaq people of Newfoundland," reads the statement.
"We have had positive discussions with the Federation of Newfoundland Indians on reconsidering founding membership for veterans and active service members in the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation. We are working with the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation on next steps and additional details will be forthcoming."
Green light for some
At their start, the discussions centred on reconsidering a few select groups that had been denied entry into Qalipu: veterans, active military members and people who were members or affiliates of the Federation of Newfoundland Indians. FNI was the original organization that created Qalipu, along with the federal government.
Indigenous Services Canada's letter did hold a sliver of good news: veterans and military personnel will be reconsidered. Mitchell welcomed that, but said it pertains to only about 60 people in total. In a statement, Mitchell called the veterans issue one that the two sides "could easily agree needed to be remedied."
He said any membership reconsideration will involve a ratification vote among band members.
For the others, who belonged to the FNI, the letter is a sting, and a setback. He urged them, as well as current Qalipu members, to put their emotions into letters to the federal government.
"I think our people have to get to these members of Parliament and say, 'Hey, what happened here? You know, why is this happening to me right now, after 27 months of conversation, that we all thought was working in a positive direction?'" Mitchell said.
"Right now, that direction is nowhere as far as we can tell, and we're not happy about it."
Long Range Mountains MP Gudie Hutchings — who announced the start of discussions back in 2018 — released a statement saying she was "incredibly disappointed" with Indigenous Services Canada and urged it to resume talks.
"These original FNI members are the original leaders in their communities, are proud of their ancestry and are the reason that Mi'kmaq culture and history has been sustained and shared with future generations," Hutchings said in the statement, posted on Facebook
CBC News has requested comment from Indigenous Services Canada.
Its letter did not offer a timeline to potentially resume talks, and Mitchell said he's had no indication when it will happen. In the meantime, Mitchell has written a letter of his own to Miller and copied the prime minister, the premier, and other politicians to make the band council's position known.
"This is a tough situation and everybody needs to be aware of what happened here," he said.