On September 13th, Dr. Pamela Palmater addressed the Ottawa community at Carleton University. She spoke about the assimilation, which she refers to as elimination of First Nations peoples, and about Harper’s plan to erase cultural identity. She addressed many crucial issues facing First Nations across the country, ranging from housing and health, the education system, the increased surveillance of indigenous activism, and most recently, the impact that the First Nations Property Ownership Act could have on indigenous communities.
Dr. Palmater is an associate professor and the chair of Indigenous Governance in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. She has been practicing law for 14 years and holds a doctorate degree in the Science of Law (JSD) in Aboriginal law from Dalhousie University Law School. She is a Mi’kmaq woman from Eel River Bar First Nation.
Following the event, Crystel Hajjar of The Leveller sat down with Dr. Palmater to reflect on indigenous issues in Canada.
CH: When did you first start becoming involved in Aboriginal rights activism?
PP: Probably when I was about six years old. I have eight sisters and three brothers and they are very politically active, and my father demanded that we be active in our community. So they took me to every meeting, protest, negotiation, organization, assembly, and conference. I was small so I didn’t have a choice then. When I was around 12, I started getting involved in indigenous youth organizations and volunteering at a whole host of them that dealt with housing and chopped-down services. I’ve always been working on the political scene too – behind the scenes. I’ve never in my memory not been part of it.
CH: On Sept. 4, Leo Baskatawang arrived to Ottawa, after starting the March 4 Justice from Vancouver, with the Indian Act attached to his body to symbolize its erosion. He describes the Indian Act as “a notoriously relic piece of federal legislation that has subjugated Aboriginal peoples to archaic colonial policy.” What do you think of that?
PP: The Indian Act is a complete piece of racist, discriminatory, paternalistic, colonial legislation, which also protects certain rights, legislates funding authorities, and anchors the crown to treaty obligations. It protects treaty rights from interference by provincial laws. There are a whole lot of other things in the Indian Act in addition to the paternalism. So yes, it is a relic, but you cannot just get rid of it. That would mean getting rid our rights and existing protections for our communities. There are First Nations who want to keep certain parts of the Indian Act to keep the federal government honest.
It is up to First Nations when and if they want to get rid of it, and how and what they replace it with. I am opposed to MP Rob Clarke’s bill to repeal the Indian Act tomorrow. It is far more complex than people with a little bit of knowledge about the Indian Act understand.
CH: Could you discuss your views on the Harper government’s policies on Indigenous people and Indigenous rights?
PP: The Harper government isn’t even hiding the fact that it wants to integrate, which means assimilate, First Nations. He wants to unlock our land, which means take the rest of our reserve land and make us like Canadians. That was in their Crown-First Nations gathering speech and is in their policies.
CH: What do you think people should be doing about these policies?
PP: People need to understand the history, the causes of current conditions, what all the facts are, and the implications of all of these policies.
CH: Do you have comments about the proposed mining projects and pipeline that go through Indigenous lands without proper consultation? For example, the proposed Enbridge pipeline proposed in the wild Fawn River watershed in Northern Ontario?
PP: The Harper government has no respect for the law, the constitution, the charter, treaties or international law with respect to the duty and legal obligation to solve and accommodate the rights of indigenous peoples, and that’s clear. I support any indigenous nation that wants to protect its territory, but it’s not my call to make.
CH: Sept. 5 marks four years since the disappearance of Shannon Alexander and Maisy Odjick from Maniwaki Quebec. What are your thoughts on the government’s response to these inquiries?
PP: Stephen Harper and Conservative governments generally silence any voices that make the current realities of Indigenous people public knowledge, their culpability public knowledge, and Indigenous resistance – what it is that they’re doing – public knowledge. So Sisters in Spirit brought to light that indigenous women were going murdered and missing, and that the police didn’t give any care or thought to that, because they consider these women subhuman. Because Sisters in Spirit brought this to light, they had their funding cut.
This past summer, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs decided to take on the cause of murdered and missing Aboriginal women, and they had their funding cut by 80 percent. This is how Harper will silence our voices, aside from omnibus bills and legislation, and the labelling of environmentalists and indigenous people as terrorists in order to restrict and monitor their movements.
CH: What further steps need to be taken to protect murdered and missing Aboriginal women?
PP: We must recognize Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal treaty rights, and First Nations’ jurisdiction over their own communities. Adequate and non-discriminatory funding must be provided.
CH: What are some of the biggest personal challenges you face in your work?
PP: I have to make sure that what I am doing is always done from a place of respecting every other indigenous nation’s solidarity. While I might say, “Well, I don’t represent all indigenous people” and “I don’t represent all Mi’kmaq people,” the public will take it that way. Thus, I always have to be careful that whatever I am saying respects everyone’s sovereignty and their own indigenous cultures and ways of being. I need to be cautious that I don’t ever come forward to impose solutions or anything else on anyone.
CH: What would you like to say to allies?
PP: Solidarity means standing beside and supporting. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything. But it means when you can, stand in support. Never assume the role of saviour, or assume that you know what’s best. Don’t let your own agenda determine how you treat indigenous people.
Solidarity not saviourism.
Originally published in The Leveller, Vol. 5, Issue 1.
Crystel Hajjar is an Ottawa based journalist, activist and organizer. She is an active member of the Ottawa Working Group of the Media Co-op.