A change of identity

Jacqueline’s grandmother might be spinning in her plot aft er her family’s stunning discovery (Cara Smith/AQ)

The strangest thing about it all is that, Dad, at heart, is a racist. That’s not easy for me to say out loud, because I do love him beyond belief. But it’s true, and it’s always been so.

I don’t mean your stereotypical southern, Klu Klux Klan, white supremacist, ranting racist. No, he’s the kind that is probably the most pervasive in this world – possibly the most toxic – the universal racist, I guess you could say.

He’s the kind that really has no idea he’s racist. In fact, he truly believes he’s accepting and progressive, and, compared to his own community and his own people’s standards, he’s likely right.

In Pictou, Nova Scotia, where I was born and most of my father’s and grandfather’s people live, blacks from New Glasgow weren’t even allowed into the town after eight o’clock. I remember it distinctly. The policy, my grandmother told me, was really out of concern for them – the blacks, I mean.. It wasn’t because anyone had anything against them, my grandmother said – at least she didn’t – but Lord knows what some of the less tolerant types might do after a draught or two at the waterfront.

I remember, too, the reaction my grandmother had when she first met my husband, Mike. She was absolutely not impressed and, of course, she had no qualms telling my mother.

It was the early 70’s, just towards the end of the “drugs, sex and rock-‘n-roll” hippie days. Mike and I both had the same hair-dos then – straight, parted in the middle and down past our shoulders. Mike’s was much nicer than mine. His was thick and very black.

Anyway, Nanny arrives from Nova Scotia, all 4 feet, 11 inches of her – as wide as she was tall- and takes one look at him – his long straight hair, his black eyes and tanned skin, and hussles Mom into the kitchen to say, “Oh, my God, Mary, he’s just shy of feathers and a basket. My God! Did you know?”

But here’s the irony of all ironies – it is directly through this very woman that we will all soon be officially declared full-status Qalipu Mi’kMaq First Nations people. She must be “spinning in her plot”, as she liked to say.
I remember our conversation when Dad called to tell me about the discovery. “Oh, Dad, come on,” I said, “There aren’t any Indians in Newfoundland, not on the island anyway.”

“Well,” he says, “I’m telling you there is and we are and it’ll be proven shortly. We’re Indians from St. Georges Bay through your great-grandfather, Bonifice Benoit. In fact, by the time she’s all over, we’ll be the biggest Indian band in the country.”

“My God,” I said.

“Yeh,” he said, “We’re consider’n an attack.”

***

Johanna White, my grandmother, was born in St. Georges Bay, Newfoundland. Her people are all still there, though I’ve met only a few of them. They’re all short and dark and hilarious. But Johanna’s family were really not “Whites”.

They were in fact “LeBlancs” who changed their French name (not legally) to White in order to be able to get work, feed their families , and be accepted into the thick of their hugely Anglo- Irish world.

That much of her story I already knew, not that she had ever told us, but my grandfather and his relatives did.

And so what happened was in 1949, Newfoundland joined Canada. But, and I assume because there weren’t any First Nations people on the Island of Newfoundland, the province did not adopt the Indian Act at the same time they joined Confederation. The Boetuk’s, who were the original indigenous people of the Island of Newfoundland, were all gone by then. They had been killed or died of TB, all by the mid-1800s.

At least, that’s what most people thought. But, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, there was another group of Indians in Newfoundland who had come there 300 years ago, before Canada was Canada. They were Qalipu (pronounced Hal-lay-boo) Mi’kMaq from the Maritimes. And so these Indians were left out of treaty rights and any recognition given to the rest of the country’s Indians -first because Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada, and then because, when they did become part of Canada, the Indian Act wasn’t included.

And so, to make a very long story short, the Qalipu Mi’Kmaq have been fighting for that status ever since. In 2008, they got it.

***

Now, here’s where Nanny’s story comes in. Apparently, the Qualipu’s assumed French names, either brought with them from theFrench Maritimes or they had settled with the very few French who were in Newfoundland at the time. By whatever means, in the process of establishing the direct First Nations, pre-1949 lineage, it was discovered the vast majority of the French living in the St. Georges Bay area were actually Qalipus – including my grandmother and her people.

It was astounding. I realized, here was this little woman who lived out her entire life in denial of not one, but two heritages, first the native and then the French, neither one apparently good enough. I thought, my God, what must that do to a person’s innate sense of worth, how bad must have things been that she and her family felt that was what they had to do.

Now that I think about it and now that I know her history and her heritage, I see both my grandmother and my father much more clearly. And I think I’m closer to understanding what racism is really about, how it grows, and how it can be sustained through generations. Fundamentally, racism is about fear and insecurity. It’s the bravado face of a desperate grasp for control and, oddly enough, even acceptance.

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  • Christine

    I grew up in Pictou and have been trying to trace my family back. You are my cousin. Johanna White is my great-grandmother, on my father’s side. And yes, she flat-out denied having First Nations ancestry.

    We’re all dark skinned. Many of my cousins have their status now, but my mother does not want me to get mine because she thinks it would be disrespectful to do so, because my great-grandmother denied having the ancestry.

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