- Mi’kmaq College Institute, Cape Breton University
- Mi’kmaq Resource Centre, Cape Breton University
- Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources
- Eskasoni Fish & Wildlife Commission
In eastern Canada, five Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island) Mi’kmaq communities sit along the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes, a semi-saline water body that opens onto the North Atlantic. The Unama’ki Mi’kmaq were the first aboriginal people in North America to have prolonged contact with Europeans. This has conferred some advantages, especially in terms of political savvy in confronting a European mindset, but also means that five hundred years of colonisation have left the Mi’kmaq facing a number of ecological and socio-economic challenges.
In recent years the Unama’ki Mi’kmaq have increasingly become players and stakeholders in the non-aboriginal society of Cape Breton. Most significantly, they have taken a prominent role in the search for solutions for the infamous Tar Ponds of Sydney, Nova Scotia-Canada’s most toxic site, left over from generations of steel-making (Gordon 1997). They are taking part in the planning for site clean-up and opening an office in the Membertou First Nation to deal with the problems associated with the Tar Ponds. They are assembling a data base of Mi’kmaq students attending Cape Breton University and also the graduates of Cape Breton University in the fields of science, technology and environmental studies who could be hired to work in the Tar Ponds clean-up. Two Mi’kmaq construction companies have also be awarded contracts to work at the Tar Ponds site which could last a number of years.
Overall, the Unama’ki Mi’kmaq have made great strides in their development and have received recognition and respect from the surrounding district. They have made a visible, positive impact in the areas of environmental sustainability, tourism and other business development.
Capacities and Opportunities
The Unama’ki Mi’kmaq have wielded the jurisprudence of their title to the land to successfully challenge unsustainable resource-use practices, most notably in their victory over the Government of Canada in the Middle Shoals Dredging Case, where they demonstrated that the government had breached its fiduciary responsibilities in allowing the dredging of one of the entrances to the Bras d’Or Lakes (Federal Court of Canada Trial Division 1996). The Mi’kmaq institution Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources has developed the Netukulimk GIS database of the ecology of the Bras d’Or Lakes, interweaving ecological data with the Local-Traditional Ecological Knowledge of elders and resource harvesters. Of equal importance have been their shrewd negotiations with international corporations such as Georgia-Pacific, whereby they have secured royalties from natural resource extraction while simultaneously enforcing more stringent environmental standards than those required by the government (Georgia-Pacific Canada and the Unama’ki Mi’kmaq Communities 1998).
In conjunction with the University College of Cape Breton (now Cape Breton University), the Mi’kmaq have developed unique “Native Guardians” (conservation and enforcement) and the “Two-Eyed Seeing” Mi’kmaq Science programme that provide pedagogical opportunities for Mi’kmaq youth and important capacity-building for environmental management.
These sorts of actions have helped them the Unama’ki Mi’kmaq to promote sustainable natural resource-use management and establish themselves as competent stewards of the Bras d’Or Lakes watershed and other parts of the island. They are now investigating alternate forms of economic development including eco- and cultural tourism and new relationships with natural resource extraction corporations (Hipwell 2004b).
Cultural dislocations and economic marginalisation have combined to create all-too typical problems of substance abuse and interpersonal violence in Unama’ki Mi’kmaq communities. Surrounding settler communities continue to treat the Mi’kmaq with suspicion and racial discrimination. Broader problems of systemic racism have served to hinder Mi’kmaq advancement within the wider society (Mannette 1990). Although the Unama’ki Mi’kmaq have managed to negotiate a cash settlement with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans over a contested lobster fishery that has led to violent conflict elsewhere in Mi’kmaq territory, the nation still faces severe restrictions on its ability to utilise its natural resource base (for discussion of the conflict, see Coates 2000; for discussion of cash settlements, see Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) 2003).