In every way, the 40-year-old Christmas appears to personify the new Mi'kmaq image, one that bridges the old world and new. In 1999, Canadian Business magazine called the lawyer, whose ponytail flows over the collar of his business suit, "the most powerful guy in Atlantic Canada," ahead of the McCains, Irvings and Brian Tobin.
Christmas became the band's first chief executive officer in 1995, when he came home to Nova Scotia from Bay Street law firm Lang Michener. Since then, he has recruited other band members from the federal government, Mobil Exxon and Nestlé Canada to help to forge ties with the business world. And he has set a new tone with the business community in Atlantic Canada, distancing himself and his people from the lobster warriors at Burnt Church.
"The days are kind of over when we just demand we have these rights," he says. "It's not working any more."
The Mi'kmaq came to their position honestly. Few other first nations have known more turmoil and few bands have been through more ordeals than Membertou. To make way for a huge new steel mill back in the 1920s, it was moved from its traditional coastal site near Sydney to a hilltop overlooking the depressed coal-mining city.
Soon, there was little for band members to do other than collect welfare and take their chances on generations of government make-work schemes. In the 1980s, they lost $400,000 in a fly-by-night investment fiasco to manufacture porous irrigation pipes for a U.S. company.
Even today, the reserve may be best known as the home of Donald Marshall, who spent 11 years in prison for a killing he did not commit. But another Marshall legal case had an even greater impact on his people.
Now 48, Marshall spends most of his time in Halifax, but in the 1990s he fought a landmark case to the Supreme Court of Canada that affirmed aboriginal people's special fishing rights. As a result, his band has seen its economy transformed. Its fishing quota has grown so much that Clearwater Fine Foods now markets a Membertou line of snow crab and employs about 20 band members in its fish plant at Glace Bay.
This year, fishing and other economic activities will cover about half the band's $12-million budget. In the 1970s, the budget was less than $100,000, and all the money came from Ottawa.
But the cash flow was not automatic. Chief Paul says the band had to clean up its own act first before companies such as Clearwater and Georgia-Pacific would take it seriously. He hired a qualified controller and put in place finance and personnel policies, rather than running the place like a corner store, which is how many band offices function.
His band also launched a Web site that includes financial statements and the salaries of top officials (including the chief's - $42,000 a year). Membertou now is applying for ISO 9000 certification - the seal of approval in international business - which it believes no other aboriginal government in the world has obtained.
Tucked away on the bleak edge of Sydney, the reserve, with its rows of small bungalows, still looks like a low-rent suburb, no better or worse than the rest of Cape Breton's northern coast. But the chief says his people are at least talking again of hope, the one sentiment missing on so much of the island. Since the push for private investment, suicides and teen pregnancies have gone down while incomes have gone up. Last year, the band says, its 1,000 members generated $52-million in economic activity.