Mi’kmaq scholar, lawyer and activist Pamela Palmater discussed indigenous sovereignty on the eve of Trudeau’s first federal budget on a snowy day at the University of New Brunswick’s Fredericton campus.
Originally from Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick and now the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University in Toronto, Palmeter delivered the annual UNB Nels Anderson Lecture. Her talk was titled “Sovereignty Changes Everything: Understanding Canada’s Commitment to Nation to Nation Relations with First Nations” and was hosted by university’s Sociology Department and the Law and Society Program.
Elder Sharlene Paul welcomed Palmater to Wolastoq territory, a territory Palmater calls her “second home.”
Palmater began her talk by declaring that she does not vote and is non-partisan because she wishes to remain neutral in her analysis. Her previous employment with the Federal government gives her specific insight into the meaning of the words used by politicians.
In mentioning sovereignty, Palmater wants the government to understand that the implications of using the term “nation-to-nation” dialogue has important ramifications.
The Liberal Party has used the term “nation-to-nation relations” as one of its priorities, along with four other priorities within their four year mandate.
For Palmater, the significance of this relationship goes beyond having indigenous people “dancing at the Olympics.”
Indigenous people need to set their agenda in the nation-to-nation relationship building and decide who will represent them, according to Palmater.
Leading up to 2015
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau managed to put an end to Stephen Harper’s “decade of oppression.” This is significant for Palmater. Nonetheless, Canadians cannot forget that Harper only managed the situation that he inherited; there were hundreds of years of making the situation what it was/is. Palmater asserted that the central message of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the number of people involved in creating the situation: politicians, businessmen, religious authorities, etc.
In more recent history, under Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the Liberals were responsible for some of the repressive legislation, like the White Paper (1969) developed with his then-Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien, which proposed the abolition of the Indian Act, among other things.
The Liberals’ report card for the last 50 years implicates it in many repressive actions, such as the Sixties Scoop, the Inherent Right Policy (1995) for Indigenous self-government, and other very problematic recent policies such as those on First Nation Education (1996), the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP, 1996) and the First Nations Government Act (2002), a reform to the Indian Act.
Palmater has difficulty believing that all this political work is going to be deconstructed in Justin Trudeau’s four year term in office. One of Palmater’s primary concerns is the lack of action on indigenous and treaty rights.
Concrete proof of oppression against indigenous people can be found closer to home, such as incidents in Listiguj (Restigouche, 1981), an act of federal repression under P.E. Trudeau and Esgenoopetij (Burnt Church, 1999-2001), where they were trying to stop a handful of people from fishing. She reminded the crowd that Mi’kmaq fishermen Donald Marshall was wrongfully convicted under Liberal watch in 1971.
Other examples Palmater provided included standoffs at Gustafsen Lake in BC (1997) and Ipperwash in Ontario where Dudley George was killed (1995), both crises occurring under Jean Chretien’s government.
Palmater has analysed Justin Trudeau’s speeches; much of what he is saying has already been said and he never mentions land, autonomy or sovereignty. For Palmater, this means that the partnership is a minimal partnership, something that doesn’t reflect a true nation-to-nation dialogue.
Palmater reminded the crowd that every Indigenous nation’s identity is based on land and territory since these peoples “came out of it, like the grass.” Much of the land is unceded, she added.
Palmater’s definition of sovereignty is not one based on western definitions but on basic rights: First Nations taking care of themselves when, Palmater states, for years they “have been living on a pittance.” For her, sovereignty is built of small acts such as protecting water and speaking indigenous languages.
In international law, states and nations do not sign treaties with citizens, but with nations.
Imperial interests (France and Britain in Canada) signed treaties with indigenous nations. A treaty is thus a confirmation of the nation status of the different indigenous nations, a fact reinforced by various United Nations declarations.
Indigenous laws are also a very important concept because there is substantial meaning in the traditions, rites, customs in the First Nations. They have existed since before the signature of the treaties and are protected in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution (1982).
Palmater related an anecdote about being monitored by the Harper Government, a fact she discovered through a Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act Request. Officials were the most concerned about was her use of the word “sovereignty” because they were afraid of her building a following and provoking change.
The Treaties never altered the sovereignty of indigenous groups. Local treaties were signed to consolidate “military and political allies” not “friends.” For example, indigenous peoples fought in the World Wars as Nations with the allies, not as Canadian citizens. When they were finally granted citizenship in Canada (1960), it was made retroactive to 1947, because of the fear of retribution by the indigenous peoples for the mistreatment, something that was being legislated upon at the UN at the time.
Palmater often hears questions about how implausible it would be for all of Canada’s 634 First Nations to have their own nation. Palmater countered this with a comparison of countries’ sizes, states such as the Vatican and Monaco with tiny populations and territories, much smaller than many First Nations. For Palmater, the Mi’kmaq people are in a unique position, with the area of their land and the fact that the territory is unceded.
Crucial indigenous issues
After five months of Trudeau’s government, Palmater considers it is now time to start asking concrete questions on how it will act on indigenous issues.
The crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way and Palmater says that the government should take its time to do a thorough process. Palmater believes the lack of participation by the provinces in the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is a huge problem. For example, the Quebec government has refused to participate and it cannot be done without them.
There has been no progress so far on issues such as First Nations relations, Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, First Nations’ water issues (such as boil water advisories), and budget questions, according to Palmater. The UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) reaffirms all the rights of Indigenous peoples but the Canadian government is ignoring the situation, despite having promised to implement it in his mandate.
On the issue of Funding First Nations’ Education, there is a $25 billion deficit in spending but Palmater asks what the March 22 budget will bring if the public is focused on the unspent money under Harper.
Trudeau declared that First Nations would “absolutely” be able to veto major projects, according to the concept of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. Palmater reported that he has been backtracking on this promise; in a recent meeting with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, he repeatedly spoke of partnerships on oil and gas projects.
Palmater has analysed the Ministerial Mandate Letters for the Budget, but she suspects the Budget will not fulfill its promises, despite repeated affirmations of Trudeau’s respect for the relationship with indigenous people.
For Palmater, respecting the idea of “nation-to-nation” means many changes such as land transfers and recognition; water, resources, and air space; recognition of legislation and proclamations; possible constitutional amendments; major federal, provincial and territorial legislative amendments; transfer of taxes, fees, fines, licenses, royalties, profits from our lands (not in possession); compensation for past use; moratoriums on development or extraction until decisions are made by the Nations; amendments to the transfers to First Nations; and, most importantly, addressing the many crises created, on a case by case emergency basis.
The Truth and Reconciliation Committee findings are concerned with restoring social justice. Rights are at the core for the TRC, that has reaffirmed the need to validate the UNDRIP. For Palmater, the TRC unfolds a good program of what institutions like universities can do.
There remains much to do: restoring languages and culture and tackling the healthcare crisis are minimal actions that can be done. Palmater argues that First Nations’ healthcare spending should not only match other provinces but since the infrastructure is not in place in many First Nation communities, there needs to be more spending in these communities.
For Palmater, First Nations “are under a money microscope,” one that is not fair, for historical reasons.
Palmater asserts that First Nations are the “best hope for the future” who act as “stopgap” for the relentless assault on the land. First Nations people “will die to protect their land for future generations” because of their “life and death connections to the land” that no other group has.
According to Palmater, First Nations have a “shield against unfettered power.” Her peoples’ sword are the Canadian citizens who have had “decades of profit from [First Nations’] dispossession.”
“We should see ourselves reflected everywhere,” said Palmater, commenting on the attempts to erase indigenous peoples’ language, history and culture from spaces.
Palmater ended her talk by calling for all citizens to question the decisions made by the government and to support indigenous peoples in their activism. It is the responsibility of citizens to read documents like the TRC report to be informed.
Pamela Palmeter can be followed on social media and on her website.
Listen to the full audio of Palmater’s talk recorded by From the Margins here.