The Mi’kmaq

David Orkin writes about the past and present of the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia.

Written by David Orkin


Pre-colonisation, Mi’kmaq territory included all of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and parts of Quebec, New Brunswick and Maine.

The Mi’kmaq practised a religion based on Mother Nature, deeply tied to the land. Mythology also played an important part in spiritual life. They lived in conical birch-bark wigwams; birch bark was also used to make canoes in which to travel the waterways. The Mi’kmaq were also at home on the sea, travelling in ocean-going versions of their light canoes.

For centuries, they lived along the shoreline in summer, fishing, gathering shellfish, and hunting seals and whales. In the winter, most moved inland, setting up settlements in sheltered forested areas. Moose, bear, caribou, and smaller game provided food and clothing, supplemented by wild berries: plants and herbs were used for teas and medicinal purposes.

They respected their environment and only killed, took or used what they needed. When Europeans first settled Nova Scotia, the natural resources were virtually untouched. They befriended the first French settlers, acting as guides, teaching them to live off the land and showing them how to make fish-weirs and eel-traps, how to ice-fish, which wild berries were safe to eat and how to prepare them, how to cure and prevent scurvy, and more.

The Mi’kmaq began to convert to Christianity in 1610, and their way of life underwent other major changes as they abandoned many traditional customs and focused on gathering furs and hides for trade purposes. The French gave them weapons, and both French and English passed on diseases such as smallpox which killed hundreds – if not thousands. Distrustful and fearful, the English and New Englanders saw the Mi’kmaq not as allies but hostile savages, and decided that forceful subjugation and assimilation would be the best course of action. In 1749, Governor Cornwallis put a bounty on the head (or scalp) of every Mi’kmaq, man, woman or child. The amount of the bounty was increased the following year.

Although a proclamation by King George III in 1763 promised protection for the Mi’kmaq and their hunting grounds, they suffered a similar fate to that of First Nations people and Native Americans across the continent. Often caught between the French and the English/British power struggle for North America, they were robbed of their land, persecuted, forced to live with virtually no rights, and herded onto reserves. For decades, the federal government actively suppressed Mi’kmaq traditions. For example, in 1885, religious ceremonies were prohibited. In 1927, Canadian government legislation forbade aboriginals in Canada from forming political organisations, as well as practising their traditional culture and language.

In the 19th century, the Mi’kmaq were confined to about 60 locations, both on and off reserves, dotted about the province. In the 1940s, the Canadians implemented a Centralisation Policy, which mandated that they be moved against their will to just two reserves. Young Mi’kmaq children were taken away from their families and taught the ‘white-man’s ways’, to integrate them into mainstream society – and rapidly lose the culture and heritage of their ancient way of life.

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