The Membertou, an urban First Nation community of over 1,400 people in Sydney, Nova Scotia, is one of the most dynamic and economically successful Native bands in all of Canada. Membertou belongs to the greater tribal group of the Mi’kmaw Nation, which has a history going back 13,000 years. The band is named after Grand Chief Membertou, who was born more than 500 years ago (1510-1611).
Like all First Nations, the Membertou suffered under colonialization. In 1926, the band was moved from its original Kings Road Reserve on the waterfront, already greatly reduced from its traditional lands, to the present location about 3 km south of city centre. This was the first time an Aboriginal community had been legally forced to relocate in Canadian history. The healing process for the Membertou band started in 1999 after a public apology from the Mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
In 1995, the community was poor with low morale and a high unemployment rate. Today, everything is different, and Membertou is thriving. The Membertou Trade and Convention Centre is the most conspicuous part of the new growth. It is a modern building offering 20,000 square feet of meeting and event space that draws thousands of people, exposing them to Native culture. It also has a top restaurant, Kiju’s. The Centre is connected via a raised walkway to the (private) Hampton Inn.
The five-acre Membertou Heritage Park, located beside the Conference Centre, was opened in 2012 to showcase Membertou culture and history. The park includes an indoor area with interactive exhibits giving insight into ancient traditions. You can learn Mi’kmaw dance and drum routines, and wander through the outdoor displays. The Petroglyphs Gift Shop offers Aboriginal crafts.
Other facilities include an Entertainment Centre, opened in 2007, with Bingo and video lottery terminals. There is also a Youth Centre. The Sport & Wellness Centre includes two arenas. A bowling alley is in preparation.
There are many other signs of success. The land base of the Reserve has doubled. The employment rate has grown to nearly 80% in the community. Membertou’s operating budget reached $112 million in 2016. The number of employees has jumped from 37 to 550 (during peak season). It is the first Indigenous community in the world to receive ISO: 9001 (Quality Management System) certification.
The reason for this remarkable resurgence is quickly evident: good management. Chief Terrance Paul, who has been elected continuously since 1986, has provided excellent leadership, and built a strong team. He has worked hard to put the financial house in order while embracing transparency and accountability. A youthful 65 years of age, Chief Paul said, “I’m having fun. I put in many hours but it doesn’t feel like work.”
An unusual initiative was to convince talented band members who had left the community to return and take up leadership roles. It worked.
Jeff Ward, the general manager of the Membertou Heritage Park, is an ambassador for Membertou. He provides public awareness presentations on Mi’kmaw culture and spirituality and acts as master of ceremonies for numerous First Nation events, including pow wows, or Mawiomis, in the Atlantic Region. Pow wows are an important part of Membertou culture and one is held annually in September.
Ward has been dancing, drumming and performing since the age of 8 years. He is a member of both the Sons of Membertou Singers (and drummers) and Thunder Eagle Singers. The Sons of Membertou performed recently in France at the 100th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge. “I shook hands with Prince Charles,” Ward said, “and invited him to visit Membertou.”
Another sign of Membertou success was the appointment of Dan Christmas to the Senate in December 2016, the first Mi’kmaw to be so honoured. Christmas played a key role in the implementation of Mi’kmaw Aboriginal and treaty rights in Nova Scotia, and in re-building the Membertou band. “I’ve been part of the transformation of the community from being a have-not community to one of the more prosperous aboriginal communities in Canada,” said Christmas. “Danny brings common sense and true honesty to the Senate,” said Chief Paul.
In addition to the Chief, many councillors have served a long time (elections are held every two years), providing stability to the community. New ties and partnerships have been forged while incorporating Indigenous values. Emphasis is placed on education and career-related training. As an example of the forward thinking, the Membertou Entrepreneur Centre was established to provide customized business training and support to interested entrepreneurs in the community.
The Membertou community has, indeed, come a long way. “The Chief gets the accolades,” said Chief Paul, “but it’s all happened because of a great team.”