There are 42 reserves in Nova Scotia, held by 13 First Nations (see First Nations in Nova Scotia). Nova Scotia is one of just two provinces, the other being Prince Edward Island, that is part of the traditional territory of only one Indigenous people. In both cases, it is the Mi'kmaq. In 2020, there were 17,895 registered Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, about 63 per cent of whom (11,202 people) lived on reserve. Reserves in Nova Scotia vary in size from over 3,500 hectares to less than one, though almost every First Nation has more than one land tract.
All of Nova Scotia is a part of Mi’kma’ki, the Mi’kmaw ancestral homeland. However, the land the Mi’kmaq currently occupy in the province is much smaller. The reserves’ combined area totals about 11,717 hectares, or about 117 km2 — 0.2 per cent of Nova Scotia’s total area (55,284 km2). These reserves belong to First Nations spread throughout the mainland and Cape Breton. (See also Indigenous Territory.)
Because of Nova Scotia’s relatively small size, none of its reserves are considered remote. Almost all are within 100 km of a population centre, and all are connected to the electrical grid. (See also Electric Power.)
Did You Know?
Mi’kmaq is a plural noun that means “the people.” The singular version of the word, used to refer to one person, ends in a “w” — Mi’kmaw. The singular version also plays the role of an adjective where it comes before a noun; for example: Mi’kmaw treaties. However, many communities and organizations continue to use the term Mi’kmaq in their official names and titles.
First Nations with reserves in Nova Scotia are all Mi’kmaw. The First Nation with the largest on-reserve population is Eskasoni First Nation. As of 2020, 4,015 of their 4,681 members lived on reserve. Eskasoni First Nation holds three parcels of reserve land, one of which, Malagawatch No. 4, they share with several other First Nations. However, the majority of their members living on-reserve live on land known legally as Eskasoni No. 3. This primary Eskasoni reserve is located on Cape Breton Island.
The Mi’kmaq were one of the first Indigenous peoples in Canada to have regular contact with Europeans. The French colonized parts of their land in the 17th century. While the Mi’kmaq and French had mostly friendly relations, the arrival of the British resulted in frequent warfare, as France and England were engaged in imperial wars during this time. (See also Indigenous-French Relations and Indigenous-British Relations Pre-Confederation.)
The Mi’kmaq, many of whom had converted to Roman Catholicism, sided with the French in these conflicts. Following the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), France surrendered mainland Nova Scotia to the British under the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). This happened without the knowledge of the Mi’kmaq, who did not believe they had surrendered their land to the French in the first place.
During continued warfare between the British and Mi’kmaq, a series of peace agreements were signed, including the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1725, 1752 and 1760–61. However, unlike the later Numbered Treaties, these agreements did not concern the surrender of land. Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia therefore continue to claim Aboriginal title (ownership) to the province, in addition to their reserves.
Did You Know?
British-Mi’kmaq conflict formerly ended after the “Burying of the Hatchet Ceremony” — an event that took place on 25 June 1761 during the signing of the Peace and Friendship Treaties. “Burying the hatchet” is a phrase commonly used to refer to the ending of a feud. During the 1761 ceremony, those who signed the treaties celebrated by dancing and singing.
In 1763, following the end of the Seven Years War, the British issued a Royal Proclamation. It defined the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples, and claimed to protect Indigenous territory from settlers. In practice, however, white settlement continued. Twenty years later, the British government began granting land to the Mi’kmaq. The first designated “Indian Reserves” were created in 1801, followed by more in 1820 (the year Cape Breton was incorporated into the colony) and 1821.
In his review of these lands in 1843, Joseph Howe, then Nova Scotia’s commissioner for Indian Affairs, noted that reserves had been created on poor-quality lands. The reserves were also vulnerable to intrusion by settlers. By the mid-19th century, the Mi’kmaw population in Nova Scotia had declined to around 1,500. (Estimates have placed the pre-contact Mi’kmaq to anywhere between 3,500 and 6,000 people.)
Confederation in 1867 and the passage of the Indian Act in 1876 put further strain on Mi’kmaw society. The federal government established residential schools to assimilate Indigenous peoples throughout Canada. The Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous peoples in the Maritimes were sent to the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia, which operated from 1930 to 1967. However, the government found it challenging to administer services to a small population. Therefore, in 1942, Indian Affairs initiated a policy of centralization: all Mi’kmaq were encouraged to move to one of two reserves, one on the mainland (Shubenacadie) and one in Cape Breton (Eskasoni).
It has also been suggested that the government wished to move the Mi’kmaq away from white settlement areas. The department built houses and promised jobs in these areas in an effort to encourage people to move. Although some Mi’kmaq did move, the houses were of poor construction and employment opportunities were limited.
The policy was met with increasing resistance and it was abandoned in 1949. Nevertheless, centralization damaged a number of communities, in some cases depriving them of all their residents. It also had a lasting effect on the distribution of Mi’kmaq in the province: Sipekne’katik (formerly Shubenacadie) and Eskasoni remain the most populous reserves on the mainland and Cape Breton, respectively.
With the exception of self-governing First Nations (of which there are none in Nova Scotia), the federal government has some level of control over reserves through the Indian Act. First Nations in Nova Scotia each receive funding from the government through annual “contribution agreements,” and have also been developing their economies. In general, however, government financing has not kept pace with population growth or inflation.
Mi’kmaw First Nations in Nova Scotia select their leaders — a chief and councillors — through elections. First Nations that are not self-governing have the option of holding elections under the rules of the Indian Act, the First Nations Elections Act or through a custom method specific to the community. With the exception of Glooscap First Nation and Acadia First Nation, both of which use a custom system, First Nations in Nova Scotia hold elections under the rules of either the Indian Act or the First Nations Elections Act.
There are also larger organizations that unite the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia. The Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq is a tribal council that brings together seven of the mainland First Nations. The Union of Nova Scotia Indians is another, older tribal council, formed in response to the 1969 White Paper. It has six members: all of the Cape Breton First Nations, as well as Acadia First Nation. Eleven First Nations are also a part of the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative, which is involved in ongoing consultation and negotiation with the federal and provincial governments. The Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative takes direction from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs (also known as the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi’kmaq Chiefs).
Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq are also involved with the Mi’kmaq Grand Council. Historically, the Grand Council was the decision-making body for all of Mi’kma’ki, composed of representatives from its seven districts and presided over by a Grand Chief. However, following the passage of the Indian Act, the role of the Grand Council changed. While it no longer has formal authority, it continues to have an impact on Mi’kmaw political, cultural and spiritual life.
The Peace and Friendship treaties protect Indigenous rights to hunt and fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes, and to earn a moderate livelihood. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Marshall case (1999) confirmed such rights. (See also Donald Marshall Jr. and Sylliboy Case.)
Various Mi’kmaw First Nations exercise their hunting and fishing rights, such as Eskasoni, which has entered into a partnership with nearby seafood producers in North Sydney. Eskasoni now has a company, Crane Cove Seafoods, that employs between 90 and 95 Mi’kmaw fishers.
However, exercising these rights has sometimes put communities into conflict with non-Indigenous groups. Some lobster fishers have been upset by members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, who they believe have been catching and illegally selling lobsters out of season. On 17 October 2020, tensions escalated as a lobster pound was burned down in Middle West Pubnico. The federal government, which is responsible for fisheries, has yet to provide clear guidance on what a “moderate livelihood” involves.
Many Mi’kmaw First Nations have historically had their reserves taken, sold or otherwise separated from them without their informed consent. For example, Membertou First Nation was formerly located next to the harbour in Sydney, at a place known as Kun’tewiktuk. Local officials repeatedly tried to evict the community at the turn of the 20th century. They were unsuccessful at the time because the rules of the Indian Act did not allow this, and the residents refused to leave. However, the rules were changed in 1911 to allow the eviction of “Indians” if their reserve was within or bordered a city with a population of more than 8,000. The Mi’kmaq were ordered to leave in 1916 and, by 1928, all of them had been moved to a new reserve away from the city and the water. In an interesting twist, Membertou First Nation purchased their former land in 2015.
Pictou Landing First Nation once relied on A’se’k, also known as Boat Harbour, as a rich traditional fishing ground. However, in the 1960s, the province allowed a pulp mill to dump its waste into the area, polluting it and making it hazardous. A pipe carrying waste from the mill burst in 2014, spilling untreated water into the harbour and damaging an ancient burial site. The community set up a blockade in response; the province has since agreed to shut down the mill’s treatment facility and address related environment concerns, though the process is not expected to be finished until at least 2030. (See also Environmental Racism in Canada.)
At the northeastern end of mainland Nova Scotia, Paq’tnkek Mi’kmaw Nation was divided in half by the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway. Since the mid-1960s, the council has struggled to gain access to the southern portion of its reserve lands. In July 2017, the community agreed to surrender some of its land in order to construct a highway interchange in partnership with the federal and provincial governments. The interchange will finally allow Paq’tnkek to easily access its lands from the highway, and provide more space for development.
Arts and Culture
Potlotek First Nation is home to Mniku (Chapel Island), a sacred place for the Mi’kmaq. It is also a National Historic Site. Mniku was a gathering place for the Mi’kmaq long before contact with Europeans. A French missionary chose it as the site for a church in the mid-18th century — hence “Chapel Island.” Mi’kmaq continue to meet at Mniku every year for a powwow in the summer that combines Mi’kmaw tradition with Roman Catholicism during the feast of St. Anne. In the winter, Mi’kmaq celebrate Wi’kapaltimk Aqtapuk, the mid-winter feast, which marks the new ceremonial year. Mniku is also the meeting place of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council. (See also Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Another important event is the Wallace Bernard Memorial Native Youth Hockey Tournament. Wallace “Wally” Bernard, a member of the Mi’kmaq Sports Hall of Fame, helped create the tournament in 1974. Since then, it has brought together teams from around Atlantic Canada. Membertou First Nation, which organizes the tournament each year, opened a new arena in 2017. (See also Ice Hockey in Canada.)
There are a great many Mi’kmaw artists, musicians and poets. Notable figures include Rita Joe, whose poem “I Lost My Talk” has become symbolic of the harm inflicted on Indigenous people and culture by the residential school system, and Lee Cremo, an Eskasoni man who won the Maritime Fiddle Championship six times and earned the title of “Best Bow Arm in the World” in Nashville, Tennessee. He played traditional music, but also composed his own works, such as “Shubenacadie Reserve Reel” and “Constitution Breakdown.” (See also Indigenous Art in Canada and Music of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)