Chief Misel Joe talks about his life

Clayton Hunt
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Still wanting to help his people

June 4was a special day for Chief Misel Joe. On the day he celebrated his 67th birthday he was re-elected as Chief of the Mi’kmaq Nation of Conne River.

Chief Misel Joe

Chief Joe recently sat down with the Advertiser to talk about his life’s journey that took him from an ordinary young man to being the Chief of his community.

We could only go as far as grade seven or eight in Conne River at that time and had to go to St. Alban’s to continue our education. After grade eight I told my father I wasn’t going to school in St. Alban’s. He said I would have to go to work with him cutting pulpwood in Glenwood and that’s how I started my work life at a very young age.

“I spent two summers working with my father, which was a journey in itself. My father could cut five to six cords of wood a day with a bucksaw, and I simply couldn’t keep up with him.

So, at 16, I left for Halifax to meet up with my cousin Agnes who was working on a fishing trawler.

“My father was very upset with me for leaving home at such a young age. He thought I wouldn’t make it on my own because of my age and inexperience.

“But I said I’d give it a try and we’d see what would happen.

I remember I had to leave Conne River in a dory to catch the coastal boat and having just $50 for the trip.

Anyway, I found Agnes in Halifax who told me fishing wasn’t the life for me, so the two of us took off for Toronto.”

Joe was told at a Manpower Center that he was too young to be registered, as he was only 16. However, he went to the office every day and eventually he was given a job with a landscape company.

“I had no experience but hard work so they told me I could work at exercising horses at the Greenwood Race Track. However, I was too heavy for that as I was 145 lbs., and they wanted someone in the 120 lb. range.

They gave me the job with the landscape company, and I spent the summer cutting grass all over Toronto for $1.45 an hour.”

Joe returned to Conne River that fall to prove to his father that he could survive on his own.

Next spring found him back in Toronto again where he worked with the railroad and later at a mushroom farm in Milton, Ontario, for six months.

In Milton he met up with some friends who were heading west and decided he wanted to see the west too. Joe found work on a ranch in the Calgary area with a family he is still in contact with today.

“It was on this ranch I began to get ideas about how a community should be run. The oldest son of the family was the mechanic; the second youngest was like a vet and took care of the animals. The youngest son was in university studying about grains. They were like and a team that worked really well together.”

Joe later found himself back in Ontario where he spent two years working in a mine in Sudbury.

In 1969 Joe took a major step in his life as he married his sweetheart in Conne River. The couple moved back to Sudbury where Joe worked up to 1974.

In the same year an uncle encouraged him to return to live and work in Conne River.  He has been a major figure in his community and in the Coast of Bays since then.

“I was operating heavy equipment building the old Conne River log road at the time for $3 an hour. I had left a much better paying job in Sudbury, but I was home where I wanted to be.”

It wasn’t too long before Joe became interested in the political scene in the community and ran for council in 1974.

“I was interested in politics because of what I had seen on other reserves across the country. I thought we could do as good or better.

“At the time some people here didn’t want the community recognized as a reserve or to be called Indians. I think it may have stemmed from a fear about what had happened to the Beothuk people in our province.

“I saw things differently and thought the best thing that could happen to us was to achieve reserve status. At least we’d have some protection under the Indian Act with official recognition.”

In 1983 Joe accepted a nomination as chief and the rest, as he likes to say, is history.

However, that history wasn’t all smooth sailing as he was ousted from the chief’s position in 1988 after a rumour spread through the community that he had misplaced $120,000.

He was in the process of building a new house at the time with help from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The thought was the missing money was used to build his home.

Joe was cleared of any wrongdoing in two separate investigations and he was back as Chief in 1988, a position he had held since then.

“Those first two years I was out of office were tough for me, but the next four were quite a learning experience. I took time to look back over what had happened to determine how I could do things differently.

“I also took some time to upgrade my education in Halifax during this time frame.”

Joe said the attitude of most Conne Rivers towards being considered Mi’kmaq and to receive official status started to change in the early 1980s.

“From 1982 to 83 we went for 13 months without receiving any funds from Ottawa. The $800,000 we were getting annually from the federal government went to the provincial government before it reached us and government officials wanted $60,000 of the funding.

“We said no to that idea, as it was our money. They simply replied by saying we won’t grant you any of the money at all.”

It took some serious negotiations and a publicly staged hunger strike to force government’s hand. But the move worked for Joe and his group and led to the first Conne River Agreement, which stated that federal funding would go directly to the Conne River Band.

“We were in St. John’s when the government officials, who had said at one point they would give us the funding, changed their minds and said they were going to withhold the funds again.

“We knew that if we returned to Conne River without the funding we would be beaten forever. The hunger strike was our only option left and it worked.”

The whole mess also worked to start changing people’s minds about wanting reserve status in the community. It was still an uphill struggle to some degree, but the Band entered into the Indian Act in 1987 and is still under the Act today.

“The Indian Act may not be the greatest thing in the world. But we started using it to make sure everyone shared in the advantages.

“Today we are working to achieve self-governance which will give us total control over education, public works and environmental concerns.

“We are more self-governing now than most bands across the country. By this fall we should have an early agreement with Ottawa in our hands to look at and study.

“If we feel it will benefit our Reserve we will ask the people to vote yay or nay for the process.”

Chief Joe and his various band councils have made some major accomplishments in the community since 1987. The town has pretty well full employment and is the only rural community off the Avalon Peninsula growing in population. He has seen his people accept and embrace their culture in events like the annual powwow.

He has witnessed his community’s growth in infrastructure and training projects.

However, Chief Joe said he feels his biggest accomplishment is in the field of education.

“We took away control of our education from the church in the mid-80s and we haven’t looked back. Under the old system our culture, history, language and traditions were not being taught in our school.

“Our school staff has done a tremendous job in reviving student interest in our culture.

Taking control of our education was a tremendous turning point for us. To see our kids going off to university and coming back with more education to work here is a great feeling.

“By knowing about our culture and traditions and by receiving a good education we now have the resources to make this community a better place to live for everyone.

“We have also learned how to be transparent and accountable to the people over the years.  Prime Minister Harper recently mentioned our Reserve in a speech as he talked about our transparency and accountability as a Band Council.

“This is a great place to live now. We have moved toward 100 percent employment, we look after our elders and our youth and we live together in a strong community.”

Organizations: Manpower Center, Canadian Mortgage and Housing, Conne River Band Band Council

Geographic location: Conne Rivers, Halifax, Toronto Glenwood Sudbury Milton Ontario Calgary Bays Ottawa Avalon Peninsula

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Recent comments

  • dan
    August 30, 2014 - 23:24

    Chief Joe....I heard you speak at a conference a few years ago. I wonder how successful you would have been if it weren't all the government programs backing you? You almost sound important....almost.

  • Conrad
    August 29, 2014 - 18:28

    Great story and good for you, Chief Joe. Keep up the great work in your beautiful community.

  • Conrad
    August 29, 2014 - 18:26

    Great story and good for you, Chief Joe. Keep up the great work in your beautiful community.

  • Brad
    August 23, 2014 - 01:40

    Gee whiz Joe Misel....keep talking man, you are beginning to sound important. Not fooling me.