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(already listed as Conne River and the Mi'kmaq)

While accommodating the amenities of contempory life, the Mi'kmaq of Conne River maintain a proud, traditional identity



The Evening Telegram - IN FOCUS
by JEAN EDWARDS STACEY, Sept 23, 2000

A trip to Newfoundland's south coast would not be complete without a visit to the community of Conne River. Newfoundland's only Mi'kmaq Indian reserve is located at the mouth of Conne River, on the south shore of the arm of Bay d'Espoir. It is an excellent place for salmon fishing, and provides ready access to the interior of the island.

The Mi'kmaq established permanent settlement at Conne River in the late 1850s.

In the census of 1869, it was reported that there were "80 Indians at Conne River and five whites married to and resident among them."

In 1985, the Mi'kmaq of Conne River were recognized as part of Canada's First Nations and granted status under the Indian Act.

The people of Conne River call themselves Miawpukek Mi'kmaq.

The word Miawpukek means "middle river place," which is how they refer to their community.

Accessible by road since the early 1970s, Conne River is a modern community with a population of 800. The community appears prosperous. Cars, snowmobiles and ATVs are much in evidence. Modern homes are built along the main road or on lanes off it.

According to residents, the town has expanded a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.

At the start of the community, the road goes past a large complex which contains the band office, the office of the tribal police and a retail craft shop, Micmac Crafts, where native-made goods are made and sold.

During our visit, more than a dozen women were busy making products that included moccasins, jackets, purses, dresses, jewelry and glass dream catchers. Orders come from across Canada and the U.S.

Laura John, sister of band chief Misel Joe, is one of at least 25 women who produce Mi'kmaq crafts. John has made dozens of items with soft, buttery yellow deer hide, including jackets for her brother. We watched as she
completed a shoulder bag.

The Amelia Joe building next door is a combination medical and social services centre, which is named after Laura and Misel's grandmother, a well-known Mi'kmaq midwife.

St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church is not far from the Amelia Joe building.

Near the church, on a boggy hill filled with wild flowers, there's a graveyard with headstones that bear the names John, Quann, Jeddore, Stride, Joe and Hinks.

There are a number of elaborate marble headstones, but most of the graves are marked by wooden crosses, which say simply "Rest in Peace." There's something very moving about the rows of plain, white crosses with their hand-written messages.

Misel Joe says this graveyard, no longer used, is one of at least four in the community. He says trees are often planted in lieu of headstones in memory of loved ones.

Joe notes as well that while most Conne River residents are Catholics, few practise their religion. Some, like him, call themselves traditionalists and practise a way of life that includes sunrise, sweet grass and sweat lodge

The road through Conne River continues on for about one kilometre. It's a pretty road, lined with trees, that follows the river until it ends at a cove circled by a rocky beach. The communities of Milltown and Morrisville
can be glimpsed across the water. St. Alban's is further to the left.

Eighty-year-old Molly McDonald lives in a modern, green bungalow not far from the rocky beach. A widow, she lives near two of her children.

Molly is Laura and Misel Joe's aunt. Her father was Andrew Joe, a native of Conne River. Her mother was Amelia Benoit from Gaultois. Her parents met when her mother was working keeping house in St. Alban's.

Molly grew up in a family of seven boys and three girls.

In 1938, she married Alban McDonald, a Conne River native whose grandmother was from England. The couple had a family of nine children, eight of whom still live in Conne River.

Alban, who died in 1990, made a living as a logger and doing construction work. Molly worked as a janitor in the school in Conne River.

These days, Molly shares her home with two cats and one dog. The grandmother of 13, and great-grandmother of 10, likes to knit and play bingo that's broadcast on closed-circuit television. She's an avid dart player. A clock she won playing darts holds a place of honour on the bookcase in her living room. Molly also enjoys watching television.

"I watch Jerry Springer," she laughs, "and I like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? I don't watch soaps."

Molly has always lived in Conne River and says she's never had a desire to leave.

Laura and Misel are two of eight children born to Molly's brother, Noel, and his wife, Catherine. Misel is the third child and first son.

Molly's brother, William - known as Billy Joe - was band chief from 1975 to 1982. At that time, the central Mi'kmaq leader was a traditional chief who was elected for life.

In 1987, band member Marilyn John instigated a system in which a community chief and council are elected every two years. Community affairs are operated by directors who report to council.

John herself was the first chief elected under the new system. She was followed by Shane McDonald, Geraldine Kelly and Misel Joe, who is currently in his seventh year of office. Joe is also the traditional chief, an
honorary, non-political position he inherited from his uncle, Billy Joe.

Misel Joe used to be called Michael Joe, and his people were known as Micmacs.

A number of years ago, however, fellow natives in Nova Scotia discovered that the correct Indian name is Mi'kmaq; that Michael is Misel, and that a chief is a saqamaw.

Joe is now referred to as Mi'kmaq saqamaw Misel Joe.

His name change sometimes leads to some good-natured ribbing. Asked what she calls the chief, his sister laughs.

"I call him Mike," John grins, "and I won't tell you what else I call him."

"I call him Mike and sometimes Mickey," replies his aunt, Molly, when asked the same question.

The Mi'kmaq homeland was traditionally divided into seven hunting districts, each with its own chief. An eighth district - Taqanok, or southern Newfoundland - was added in 1860. The way Misel Joe tells it, his people
have lived in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec, parts of the United States, and the island portion of Newfoundland for thousands of years.

According to Joe, the original Mi'kmaq population was about 100,000. Other estimates put it at about 30,000. Over the years, the numbers of Mi'kmaq declined as a result of epidemics, disease and wars. For years, the French, the Mi'kmaq's allies, and the English waged bitter wars as they fought for control of North America. The wars took their toll. In 1760, the Mi'kmaq numbered about 3,000.

The Mi'kmaq have been at peace since 1779. Treaties signed during the early 1800s established reserves, which the Mi'kmaq still occupy in the Maritimes and in Conne River. Canada currently lists more than 16,000 registered Mi'kmaq.

During the 1870s, the community of Conne River had a mixed population that showed increasing signs of permanent Mi'kmaq settlement, strengthened by ties of intermarriage, religion and economy with Europeans. Joe says the Mi'kmaq's mixed ancestry even includes Newfoundland's extinct Beothuks.

"The Beothuks are gone as a people, but they live on in the Mi'kmaq people through intermarriage," he says.

In 1908, the settlement of Conne River was reported to have 23 families numbering 131 people who made a living hunting and trapping.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Bay d'Espoir was an important logging area and Conne River had become a settlement of loggers. Following the Second World War, Conne River residents became increasingly dependent on work outside the community. After contract logging with Bowaters ended in 1957, hydroelectric
developments of the Bay d'Espoir area provided employment in construction. When construction-related jobs ceased, government grants, unemployment insurance and social assistance were the main sources of income.

"Through all the years," Joe emphasizes, "people lived off the land, as well. Trapping, hunting and fishing have always been part of our lifestyle."

In 1974, Conne River was declared an Indian community under a provincial agreement in which Ottawa agreed to reimburse the province of Newfoundland for 90 per cent of monies spent on Indian reserves. At that time, a band council was formed with John Jeddore as the first president, and Conne River Native Enterprises was established to spearhead economic development on the new reserve.

The 1985 recognition of Conne River's Mi'kmaq as status Indians who are part of Canada's First Nations has meant a yearly infusion of somewhere between $10-$15 million from the federal Department of Indian Affairs. As well, goods delivered to the reserve, including cigarettes and gas, are sold tax-free to band members. Joe admits that at this point, Conne River wouldn't be able to make it without help from Ottawa.

In 1985, the Conne River reserve was extended by 3.2 kilometres. It's now an area 6.4 km long and 1.2 km wide.

Asked about further land claims, Joe says that according to an ongoing study, which is tied to traditional land use for hunting, fishing and trapping, approximately 16 per cent of the total land mass on the island portion of Newfoundland should be in the hands of the Mi'kmaq.



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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