Mi’kmaq (Mi’kmaw, Micmac or L’nu, “the people” in Mi’kmaq) are Aboriginal peoples who are among the original inhabitants of the Atlantic provinces of Canada.
Mi’kmaq (Mi’kmaw, Micmac or L’nu, “the people” in Mi’kmaq) are Aboriginal peoples who are among the original inhabitants of the Atlantic provinces of Canada. Contemporary Mi’kmaq communities are located predominantly in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but with a significant presence in Québec, Newfoundland, Maine and the Boston area. As of 2015, there were slightly fewer than 60,000 registered members of Mi’kmaq nations in Canada. In the 2011 National Household Survey, 8,935 people reported knowledge of the Mi’kmaq language.
Geography and Population
Mi’kmaq are among the original inhabitants of the Atlantic region of Canada and inhabited the coastal areas of Gaspé and the Maritime provinces east of the Saint John River. This traditional territory is known as Mi’gma’gi and is made up of seven districts. Mi’kmaq continue to occupy this area as well as settlements in Newfoundland and New England, especially Boston. Oral history and archeological evidence place the Mi’kmaq in Mi’gma’gi for more than 10,000 years. Mi’kmaq share close ties with other local peoples, including the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy. With the Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Abenaki peoples, the Mi’kmaq make up the Wabanaki Confederacy, a confederation of nations politically active at least from contact with Europeans to the present.
As of 2015, the number of people registered with Mi'kmaq First Nations was 58,763. Of that total, 23,997 were members of the Qalipu First Nation of Newfoundland, a landless community officially recognized by the Government of Canada in 2011. Excluding the landless Qalipu, 56 per cent of Mi’kmaq people lived on reserves in 2015. Mi’gma’gi is home to 30 Mi’kmaq nations, 29 of which are located in Canada—the Aroostook Micmac Band of Presque Isle, Maine, has more than 1,200 members. All but two communities (the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation and La Nation Micmac de Gespeg in Fontenelle, Québec) possess reserve lands. Many Mi’kmaq people live off-reserve, either in Mi’gma’gi or elsewhere. More still may not be included by registered population counts, as they are not recognized as Status Indians under the Indian Act.
Mi'kmaq is among the Wabanaki cluster of Eastern Algonquian languages, which include the various Abenaki dialects, and the Penobscot and Maliseet-Passamaquoddy languages. In the 2011 National Household Survey, 8,935 people reported knowledge of the Mi’kmaq language. Mi’kmaq is written alphabetically, though it has a history of pictographs being used. Missionaries learning Mi’kmaq used the language to teach Catholicism, while also modifying the written system. Mi’kmaq had as many as 17 different dialects — including the unique Québec dialect Restigouche — but linguistic contact with French and English speakers has eroded the prevalence of the language and smoothed dialectical differences.
Despite challenges, many language programs, including high school immersion programs, have helped to begin revitalizing the language. In 1970 there were approximately 6,000 Mi’kmaq speakers, compared to the nearly 9,000 reported in 2011. However, these numbers may be misleading. While the National Household Survey asks speakers to self-report “an understanding” of a language, linguists measure health of a language by the number of fluent speakers. In 1999, a report by the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Language Centre of Excellence indicated fewer than 3,000 fluent speakers.
Nevertheless, Mi’kmaq is the only Indigenous language in significant active use in Mi’gma’gi (Maliseet had less than 800 speakers in 2011), and as such is an important symbol of cultural strength and perseverance for the community.
Alternative names for the Mi'kmaq appear in some historical sources and include Gaspesians, Souriquois, Acadians and Tarrantines. Mi’kmaq people have occupied their traditional territory, Mi’gma’gi, for more than 10,000 years.
Mi'kmaq settlements were characterized by individual or joint households scattered about a bay or along a river. Communities were related by alliance and kinship. Leadership, based on prestige rather than power, was largely concerned with effective management of the fishing and hunting economy. Painting, music and oratory were encouraged.
In the pre-contact world of Mi’gma’gi, oral and archeological history tells of seasonally patterned habitation and resource harvesting — spring and summer spent on the coast, fall and winter inland. The people of Mi’gma’gi relied on the variety of resources available, using everything from shellfish to sea mammals to land mammals small and large for nutrition, clothing, dwellings and tools. They also used the bountiful timber to construct canoes, snowshoes and shelters, usually in combination with animal skins and sinews. The Mi’kmaq relied wholly on their surroundings for survival, and thus developed strong reverence for the environment that sustained them.
Linguistic analysis of Mi’kmaq enhances the fundamentality of this world-view. Rather than a sequential, time-based verb tense structure (as in English), Mi’kmaq is experiential, relying on the evidence of the speaker to convey meaning. Like other Aboriginal peoples in the Eastern Woodlands region, Mi’kmaq practiced art and religion intrinsically linked to the natural world. Contemporary Mi’kmaq artists like Alan Syliboy have reinterpreted Mi’kmaq artistic traditions, like rock painting and ornate quillwork clothing. (See Aboriginal Art in Canada.)
Mi’kmaq culture and traditional religion is based on legendary figures like Glooscap, who is said to have formed the Annapolis Valley by sleeping on the land and using Prince Edward Island as his pillow. The Great Spirit is the creator of the world and all its inhabitants, a concept that was not destroyed when Catholic settlers and missionaries began to influence Mi’kmaq spirituality and religion in the 17th century. (See Religion of Aboriginal People.)
European Relations: Trade, Religion and Treaties
Because of their proximity to the Atlantic, the Mi'kmaq were among the first peoples in North America to interact with European explorers, fishermen and traders. As a result, they quickly suffered depopulation and sociocultural disruption. Some historians estimate that European diseases resulted in a loss of up to half the Mi’kmaq population from about 1500 to 1600. (See Epidemic.)
As a result of sporadic contact and trade with European fishermen, the Mi’kmaq who encountered the first sustained European settlements in what is now Canada were familiar with the people, their goods and their trade habits. Additionally, Mi’kmaq oral history tells of a Mi’kmaq woman’s ancient premonition that people would arrive in Mi’gma’gi on floating islands, and a legendary spirit who travelled across the ocean to find “blue-eyed people.” The foretelling of the arrival of Europeans meant Mi’kmaq were prepared when they first encountered fishermen off their shores.
Mi’kmaq participated the fur trade by serving as intermediaries between Europeans and groups farther west, as fur-bearing animals quickly became scarce in the face of high demand. This fundamentally altered the lifestyle of the Mi’kmaq, who focused on trapping and trading furs rather than subsistence hunting and gathering.
Until the 18th century, the Mi’kmaq were largely allied with French colonial forces, which had established settlements across Acadia. In 1610, Henri Membertou, a Mi’kmaq chief (sagamo or sagamore), became the first Indigenous person to be baptized as a Catholic in New France, beginning a pattern of intense conversion and intermingling of customs. Mi’kmaq people, who had readily adapted to European trade goods, were likewise receptive to religious practices.
The Concordat of 1610 — a formal agreement between the Mi’kmaq and the Vatican marked by the creation of a treaty wampum — combined trade, treaty and religion in relations between the Mi’kmaq and the French. The Concordat made the Mi’kmaq Catholic subjects, and thus legitimized trade and other relations between settlers and Indigenous people in Acadia/Mi’gma’gi. Mi’kmaq people continued to practice their own customs, but incorporated the teachings of priests who had learned Mi’kmaq, firmly entrenching Catholicism into Mi’kmaq spiritual identity.
Mi’kmaq religion remains firmly based in Catholicism. In the early 1990s, Mi’kmaq people from across Mi’gma’gi began celebrating Treaty Day (1 October) by incorporating traditional Mi’kmaq customs like drumming and burning of sacred herbs into Catholic Mass.
Prolonged conflict between French and British colonial powers often pulled Mi’kmaq into the fray; they signed peace treaties after conflicts with Britain in 1726, 1749, 1752 and 1760–61, followed by two treaties to secure alliances during the American Revolution. The 1726 treaty, which noted that all future British settlements in Mi’gma’gi must be “lawful,” was the foundation for the subsequent treaties.
These treaties between sovereign nations recognize the inherent Aboriginal rights of the Mi’kmaq, and form the basis for modern treaty claims and renegotiations. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, though it established Aboriginal rights in much of Canada, did not mention Maritime colonies. For this reason, most post-treaty European and Loyalist settlers ignored, or were ignorant of, Mi’kmaq rights.
The Grand Council
The Mi’kmaq Grand Council (Sante’ Mawio’mi) is a collective of captains (keptins) from the Mi’kmaq nations that advocates for the promotion and preservation of Mi’kmaq people, language and culture. Before the Indian Act placed the Mi’kmaq under federal government supervision in 1876, the Grand Council was politically active. The Grand Chief (Kji Sagamaw) was the head of state for the collected Mi’kmaq political body; the members of the council maintained treaty wampum and directed policy in the interests of their people.
Federal administrators usurped the power of the Grand Council by imposing the stewardship of Indian agents as well as establishing an appointment process for local chiefs. The Grand Council currently serves to support cultural programs in Mi’gma’gi. Other organizations, like the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative (Kwilmu’kw Maw-klusuaqn), advocate politically for the recognition and implementation of treaty rights.
19th and 20th Century Struggles
Life under British, and later Canadian, governance was not kind to the Mi'kmaq, who were subjected to conscious attempts to alter their lifestyle. Most moves to establish them as agriculturalists failed because of badly conceived programs and encroachments upon reserved lands. Economic patterns that privileged employment as labourers effected irreversible change: crafts, coopering, the porpoise fishery, and road, rail and lumber work integrated the Mi'kmaq into the 19th- and 20th-century economy, but left them socially isolated.
As with many Aboriginal peoples in Canada, the Mi’kmaq are strongly affected by the lasting trauma of residential schools system. Adding to this cultural, generational and economic dislocation, in the 1940s, the Department of Indian Affairs forced more than 2,000 Mi’kmaq people living in numerous small communities to relocate to government-designated reserves. The moves, undertaken for the sole purpose of streamlining government administration were fraught with mismanagement and experimental tactics, and had disastrous effects on the communities. Homes, churches and industries were abandoned and replaced with poor conditions and economic dependency.
Contemporary Life and Activism
In 2015, there were 13 Mi’kmaq nations in Nova Scotia with a total registered population of 16,268. New Brunswick’s nine nations included 8,210 registered people, while the two nations in each of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador had populations of 1,294 and 26,966 respectively. The three Québec nations had a total population of 6,025. Before 2011, the population of registered Mi’kmaq people in Newfoundland and Labrador was significantly lower; in that year the federal government recognized the status of more than 23,000 Mi’kmaq people, who formed the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.
The formation of the Qalipu is one example of continued activism among Mi’kmaq people. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the rights of Donald Marshall, Jr., and thus all Mi’kmaq people, to a “moderate livelihood” through hunting and fishing rights. Marshall had been convicted in 1996 of fishing out of season, but the court ruled that Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in 1760 and 1761, guaranteed Mi’kmaq these rights.
The decision sparked what is known as the Burnt Church Crisis, where tensions reached a boiling point between Mi’kmaq and non-Aboriginal fishermen, who argued that unchecked harvesting in the lobster fishery would lead to devastation of stocks. Despite lobbying from organizations like the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, some non-Aboriginal fishermen destroyed Mi’kmaq traps and other equipment. The situation threatened to devolve into violence. The federal government brought the crisis to somewhat of a close by buying licences and equipment from some non-Aboriginal fishermen and entering into agreements with several Mi’kmaq communities to regulate a commercial fishery. Other Mi’kmaq communities did not reach agreements, and continue to petition the federal government to recognize treaty rights.
In October 2013 members of the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick organized a demonstration against natural gas fracking being conducted on Crown land near their community. The protests centred on environmental arguments against fracking and the unceded nature of the territory in question. Protesters erected blockades on Highway 11 and several organizers were arrested. Non-violent protesters faced off against RCMP officers, producing iconic images and reigniting debate over the scope of Aboriginal title and the politics of environmental stewardship within an industrial economy.
A.G. Bailey, The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures, 1504-1700 (2nd ed, 1969); Harold Franklin McGee, Jr, ed, The Native Peoples of Atlantic Canada (1984); B.G. Trigger, ed, Handbook of North American Indians, vol 15: Northeast (1978); Harald Prins, The Mi'kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation and Cultural Survival (1996).