The First Chief of Gespeg

Leon Jeannotte was the first Chief of Gespeg. He did many things to better his community and help his people. This is his story as told by his wife, Beatrice Coffin.

Growing up in this time was not easy for an Indian. Mi’gmaq people of Gespeg did not want to admit that they were Indian because they were afraid of the consequences from non-natives. At one time, non-natives were assigned the role as Indian Agents by the government. This means that they were employed to help Indians with necessities such as food, blankets, etc. Beatrice remembers one particular greedy Indian Agent who would keep a majority of the items for himself, which is part of the reason that the community of Gespeg didn’t trust the government.
Chief Jeannotte was one of the first to openly admit that he was a Mi’gmaq and his challenge was informing those Mi’gmaq people in his community who did not know they were Mi’gmaq of their native status.
When Chief Jeannotte was elected, the community then didn’t have many Aboriginal traditions and most were being introduced to them by surrounding communities.
Referred to as William Wysote by the Gespeg people, Jack Wysote, of the Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj was among the first to introduce Gespeg to their aboriginal heritage. He used to stay at Chief Jeannottes’ house for days giving him guidance on what he needed to do to make Gespeg a recognized Mi’gmaq community.
After the federal government recognized Gespeg as a Mi’gmaq community in 1972, Chief Jeannotte ran the band office from his home. He was the band manager, secretary, and receptionist. To prove their Indian status to the government, the Gespeg Mi’gmaq had to provide proof of their ancestry before being able to be registered and given their status. Not only did the government have control over who received Indian Status, but also had control over the land and who got it. The members did not have a land base, which to this day has not changed. That was the way things worked, and no one was able to change it until Chief Jeannotte was elected. From that time on, after the Gespeg people were finally recognized as Mi’gmaq, everything began to fall into place.