Grand Council (Miꞌkmaq)

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Grand Council Flag of the Mi'kmaq Nation

The Grand Council (Santé Mawiómi or Mi'kmawey Mawio'mi) is the normal senior level of government for the Mi’kmaq, based in present-day Canada, until passage of the Indian Act in 1876, requiring elected governments. After the Indian Act, the Grand Council adopted a more spiritual function. The Grand Council was made up of representatives from the seven district councils in Mi'kma'ki. The Grand Council was composed of Keptinaq, or captains in English, who were the district chiefs. There were also Elders, the Putús, the women's council, and the Grand Chief.

The Putus recorded the Mi'kmaw Grand Council meetings through stories and the creation of wampum belts, a kind of visual history. They also dealt with the treaties with other Native tribes and non-native groups.

The hereditary chiefs of the traditional Grand Council continue to have a role, but the legal authority to govern has been largely transferred by the Indian Act to the elected Chiefs and Councils.[1]

Grand Chief[edit]

The Grand Chief was a title given to one of the district chiefs, who was usually from the Mi'kmaq district of Unamáki (Cape Breton Island). This title was hereditary and usually was passed down to the Grand Chief's eldest son. The Grand Council met on a small island in the Bras d'Or lake in Cape Breton called Mniku. Today it is within the boundaries of the reserve called Chapel Island or Potlotek. To this day, the Grand Council still meets at the Mniku to discuss current issues within the Mi'kmaq Nation.

On June 24, 1610, Grand Chief Membertou converted to Catholicism and was baptised. He concluded an alliance with the French Jesuits affirming the right of Mi'kmaq to choose Catholicism and\or Mi'kmaw tradition. The Mi'kmaq, as allies with the French, were amenable to limited French settlement in their midst.

District Councils[edit]

The Mi'kmaw territory was divided into seven traditional "districts". Each district had its own independent government and boundaries. The independent governments had a district chief (Sagamaw) and a council. The district council members were band chiefs, elders, and other worthy community leaders. The district council was charged with performing all the duties of any independent and free government by enacting laws, justice, apportioning fishing and hunting grounds, making war, suing for peace, etc.

Mi'kmaw historian Daniel N. Paul notes many individual Mi'kmaq did indeed sign Treaties. However the Signators who signed on were representing their Districts only; its part of Mi'kmaq Treaty protocol that each District was Sovereign and could sign Nation to Nation agreements; then they would return home to present the agreements to the Mi'kmaq Grand Council, the Council of Women and finally to all citizens, which if consensus occurred, the newly signed Treaty would be ratified District by District.

Local Chiefs[edit]

The Local Chief looked after the affairs of the village community. He presided over the "Council of Elders", the governing body of the village. This group was made up of family heads or representatives.

Band Councils[edit]

There are approximately 35 reserves scattered across Nova Scotia today, all allotted to and administered by thirteen First Nation Mi’kmaw communities established since 1958-59. Each community has its own leadership known as the Band Council, with an elected Chief and several Councilors. The traditional Grand Council continues to exist, and issues rare rulings such as the eviction of SWN Resources from traditional territories [1].

According to Canadian law, which conflicts to some degree with treaty, international and Confederacy's own law, the formal authority to govern has been largely transferred by the Indian Act to the elected Chiefs and Councils defined in that Act.[2] Such a transfer has never been recognized by the Grand Council itself.

Modern jurisdiction[edit]

Current Grand Council powers and role are in some dispute but clearly the "elected Chiefs and Councils" do not represent all persons defined in the Indian Act nor all lands and waters specified in the treaties. This is the jurisdiction claimed by the present Grand Council. Events in 2013 highlighted the jurisdictional disputes.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in January 2013 that Métis and "non-status Indians" were Indians in the sense of the Act [2] yet were not represented at all in the Indian Act election and representation structure.

In the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples one of the key recommendations was to re-form pre-colonial polities as an overarching body to connect physically and socially isolated "reserves" (called "First Nations").

Both the RCAP and Supreme Court positions explicitly call for, and justify, a continuing role for Grand Council jurisdiction over certain cultural, social, environmental or other matters that would reasonably fall within the treaty laws. Interpretation and advocacy under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which both Canada and the US have signed, is another power claimed by the modern Grand Council, as evidenced in the SWN case in which they assert clear jurisdiction over hydraulic fracturing and other below-ground activities.

On October 17, 2013, what the Ottawa citizen described as a "heavy-handed response" (or attack) by RCMP on [3] on protesters against fracturing near Rexton, New Brunswick, most of whom were associated with the Elsipogtog band, but which had support from a dozen local councils in New Brunswick, further highlighted the jurisdictional disputes. Grand Council authority was cited by both native and non-native advocates. Accordingly, some local district councils were clearly seen to defer to Grand Council authority over both provincial and federal, and to rely on its treaty rights and UN DRIP to defend their common position calling for a moratorium on "fracking" in New Brunswick.

Several international NGOs including Christian Peacemaker Teams also supported this position [4].

The events in Rexton resulted in widespread sympathy demonstrations across North America, again bolstering the claim of the Grand Council to have this formal authority.

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