This article was originally published by the National Post on July 7, 2016
BEAUHARNOIS, Que. — The suburban bungalow southwest of Montreal has a kiddie pool out back and a three-wheel Slingshot motorcycle in the carport. From the outside, it does not look like a nerve centre of aboriginal activism.
But inside, Lise Brisebois takes a break from her duties running a home daycare — it’s nap time — to don her feathered headband and discuss the battle she is leading as chief of what is touted as Quebec’s newest aboriginal community.
“I just want to be respected,” Brisebois said. “I’m not a savage. I’m an Indian.”
She said her grandmother was an Algonquin forced to change her family name from Canard Blanc (White Duck) to Leblanc. She hopes the days when people hid their aboriginal lineage to avoid racism are over.
As chief of the Mikinaks, Brisebois is fighting for recognition of her Indian status and that of the nearly 400 members who have joined since January. Membership costs $80 and is open to those who can provide genealogical evidence of at least one aboriginal ancestor at some point in the past.
As the community grows — Brisebois expects to have 800 members by the end of the year — and becomes more vocal in its demands, it has attracted the ire of the Kahnawake Mohawks, whose reserve is just 20 kilometres away from Beauharnois.
Joe Norton, grand chief of the Kahnawake Mohawks, has labelled the Mikinaks a fraud and questioned their motives.
“They go in and they recruit those who have no idea really what they’re getting involved in, have no idea what it is to be part of the struggle,” Norton said.
“It concerns me because in the future, when it comes to settling land issues, hopefully they are not going to be part of that.”
Already the Mikinaks have created friction with attempts to use status cards issued by the Confederation of Aboriginal Peoples. The official-looking photo IDs declare that the holder is “an aboriginal within the meaning of the article 35 of the Constitution Act of Canada” and as such is entitled to exercise aboriginal hunting, fishing, trapping and trade rights.
Researchers have found that between half and three-quarters of all Quebecers have at least one aboriginal ancestor, suggesting that the potential pool of Mikinak members could number in the millions. Brisebois said there is no limit to how far back in the family tree an aboriginal ancestor could be.
“Even if it’s eight generations back, that’s OK,” she said. “The most important thing is that you feel it inside you.”
I just want to be respected. I’m not a savage. I’m an Indian.
Norton said he has no problem with people taking pride in aboriginal heritage, but he worries that some are simply seeking a way to avoid paying sales tax at local stores.
“Don’t go running all over the place using that so-called card,” he said. “Don’t even bother getting the card. Just say, ‘This is who I am,’ and be proud of it.”
Daniel Connell received his card last month after showing that his great-grandmother was aboriginal — Mi’kmaq, he believes.
“It at least recognized my aboriginal roots. Everyone has their history, and this is part of our history,” he said. He also hopes it might lead to a break on the cost of his daughter’s university education.
But according to the federal Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, that could be a long shot. Department spokeswoman Valérie Haché said the cards issued to Mikinaks — the name is Algonquin for turtle — “do not convey Indian status, nor do they confer rights and benefits linked explicitly to registered Indians.” She said the Mikinak community is not a band recognized under the Indian Act.
Brisebois, 57, is not about to give up the fight. Her home is decorated with portraits of aboriginal heroes, from the Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha to Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. “Everything is Indian here,” said her husband, Gilles Gagné, who himself discovered late in life that he had an aboriginal ancestor six generations back.
Being chief of an unrecognized community is not easy. Her headband came from a Montreal boutique that’s main business is in Asian crafts, and she found the aboriginal guardian figure hanging by her door at a flea market.
Brisebois, who is seeking to legally change her family name to Canard Blanc, has learned from her Mohawk neighbours in Kahnawake, famous for their protest tactics.
After the local Costco in Candiac refused to honour the Mikinak ID cards, she thought of the results Mohawks obtained by blockading highways.
She said she told the manager, “If I come to your store with 200 members, and you don’t accept our card, and we go block everything, what would you think of that?” Costco insists it is respecting the law by not granting tax exemptions to Mikinak members, but the company has agreed to meet Brisebois next week.
Brisebois said she called off a protest planned for Saturday so she can “negotiate” with Costco. “I’m not angry,” she said, “but it’s an injustice.”