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Indigenous Nationhood

Pamela Palmater's picture
Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi'kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and heads their Centre for Indigenous Governance.

Harper's manifesto: Erasing Canada's Indigenous communities

| September 13, 2012

Early Indian policy was designed to accomplish two main policy objectives: (1) acquire Indigenous lands and resources, and (2) reduce financial responsibility to Indigenous peoples. The primary way in which these two objectives were to be achieved was through the physical, legal, social and spiritual elimination of Indigenous peoples. I say "elimination" because that is the word which best describes government intentions. Most people today use the term "assimilation" but to my mind, this word is much too soft to describe the design and impact of government policies on Indigenous peoples in Canada.

To some readers, the term "elimination" may seem a little harsh, somewhat of an exaggeration, or perhaps rhetoric blown out of proportion which forgets the good intentions governments, churches and traders had for Indigenous peoples. I beg to differ -- not because I fall into any externally imposed category of left-wing, liberal, radical or "nutbar." I beg to differ because the facts -- the brutal, uncomfortable facts tell us a much different story. My biggest concern is not that the colonization project devastated Indigenous peoples, because the historical record clearly shows it did; it is that the colonization and devastation of Indigenous peoples continues, albeit couched in softer terminology.

Today, the few history books that have been amended to include mention of Indigenous peoples speak of the tragic loss of Indigenous cultures over time. They speak of this "loss" as a romantic part of our history where the strong, noble Indian chief on his horse looks across the horizon and realizes that the ways of his people are fading away with the coming of European trains, traders and technologies. This sort of representation may even invoke feelings of melancholy in Canadians who long for the simplicity of the old days. But it belies the truth about Canada and its direct and intentional "obliteration" of Indigenous peoples, cultures and territories.

If the term "elimination" does not make some readers uncomfortable, surely the term "obliteration" will. The purposeful destruction of a people implies the kind of ill-intent, even malice upon which a country like Canada could surely never have been built? Terms like those imply that perhaps what happened to Indigenous peoples was not simply "progress", "civilization" or a "good policy gone wrong" -- no, this falls in the realm of a word that usually upsets the majority of readers: genocide.

Many people do not understand the legal definition of genocide, nor are they aware of how genocide is considered internationally. Many are of the misunderstanding that genocide is the mass murder of millions of people all in one shot -- something akin to the holocaust. In fact, genocide is defined in the United Nations Convention on Genocide as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

That is the definition. In Canada and the United States, settler governments have committed genocide against Indigenous peoples, not under just one category, but under every single category noted above. We all know it, but the reality stands in such stark contrast to the mythology created by government about what Canada stands for, that many people resort to denial. Indigenous peoples who have raised the subject have been referred to as "nutbars", "whackos", "conspiracy theorists", "radicals" and "terrorists".

The issue of genocide is radical -- not because it is not true, but because it stands so far outside the realm of humanity and human rights that the tendency is to save the term for only the most obvious, horrific, well-known instances of genocide committed in places far away from Canada.

The term genocide is usually saved for instances where the victims are  considered to be humans -- and Indigenous peoples have long been  characterized as non-humans for centuries. Aside from the historical  depictions of Indigenous peoples as "savages", "heathens" or "pagans",  they have also been treated by governments as "dangerous and sub-human." The myth of Indigenous peoples being sub-human allowed governments to  steal Indigenous lands under the legal fiction of "terra nullius" (lands  belonging to no one). They knew better of course, but it allowed them  to justify not only the theft of lands from Indigenous peoples, but the  brutal acts of genocide which were committed upon them.

The fact that early governments sent small-pox infested blankets to Indigenous communities knowing it would nearly wipe them all out, is a historical fact. These were not the actions of a few bad apples, or something that happened in the stone age. This has been acknowledged as modern "biological warfare" by publications in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The scalping laws in Nova Scotia were deliberate acts of murder which decimated the Mi'kmaw Nation population by almost 80 per cent. The forced surgical sterilization of Indigenous women against their will, and often without their knowledge or consent, destroyed Indigenous peoples in a very physical way.

The government and church-run residential schools knowingly created conditions that led to the mass deaths of the Indigenous children who attended -- upwards of 40 per cent never made it out alive. Incredibly, not only did government officials know that Indigenous children were dying and even "acknowledged" the high rates of deaths and their causes, but this was part of the overall objective:

"But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards the final solution of our Indian problem." (SI Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott)

Why do I bring all this uncomfortableness up in my blog? Why am I asking readers to face the brutal reality that is Canada? It is because genocidal acts against Indigenous peoples continue to this day, hidden in government policies which purport to be in the best interests of Indigenous peoples. It is because every government (Libs and Cons) has had a hand in continuing the situation, but mostly because this Harper government has ramped up efforts to eliminate Indigenous peoples. In my opinion, the Harper Indigenous Manifesto is about erasing Indigenous peoples from Canada socially, culturally, legally and physically.

What used to be forced sterilizations to prevent child births and control Indigenous populations is now pre-mature deaths from the extreme poverty directly linked to chronic, purposeful under-funding, over-prescription of addictive drugs, and lack of housing, water and sanitation.

What used to be residential schools became the 60's scoop and is now child and family services removing our children from our communities at alarming rates.

What used to be European/western education forced on our children through residential schools, is now the provincial school systems, which for the most part, teach the same western ideologies, histories, sciences and politics to our children and specifically exclude our traditional Indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures.

What used to be scalping laws, are now starlight tours, murdered and missing Indigenous women by the hundreds, and quelling land claims with brute military and police force.

What used to be laws against Indigenous peoples leaving their reserves are now laws which take away rights when one leaves the reserve (taxes, governance, jurisdiction, trade, identity).

What used to be laws against Indigenous peoples gathering in one place is now CSIS, RCMP, DND and INAC putting us on terrorist watch lists, monitoring our movements, and over-incarcerating our men, women and youth at increasing rates.

What used to be laws against Indigenous peoples hiring lawyers to advocate on their behalf, are now devasting funding cuts to local, regional and provincial First Nation political organizations. All coming at a time when Harper wants chaos, confusion, and lack of political capacity to ensure there is little resistance to his comprehensive Indian Act-based legislative agenda.

He hopes to strike fear and confusion in chiefs so that they don't know whether to stay quiet and hope it doesn't get worse, or take action. Either way, funding cuts will be imposed on local First Nations as well. This is not about whether regional political organizations are doing a good job or not -- this is about Harper fulfilling the original intentions of Indian policy (1) accessing Indigenous lands and resources and (2) reducing financial obligations to Indigenous peoples. He just happens to see striking at political organizations as the best way to isolate individual First Nations, already overwhelmed with issues, so they are easier to bully into submission.

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) either does not have the capacity or inclination to take these issues on. Regardless of the reasons, it is clear that local community members are going to be looking to their local First Nation governments to take action. In the same vein, First Nation leaders will be looking for assistance from their treaty, regional and provincial organizations. The days of waiting for the AFN to do something are over. If these funding cuts are ok, so will be the ones that come to individual First Nations, then will come the eventual constitutional changes, the accelerated extinguishment of Aboriginal and treaty rights, and the division and sale of the rest of our lands.

If Canadians think that this does not concern them -- they should think again. As your "Canada" slowly becomes a dictatorship led by a rogue Prime Minister who is obsessed with power, Canadian laws, rules, and regulations are breached with impunity. Everything from elections, ethics, budgets, and legislation are manipulated without regard for the rule of law. The damage done by these renegade Conservatives is already so severe that analysts feel it will take years to undo the harm.

In standing beside Indigenous peoples to oppose these destructive policies, Canadians would be living up to the spirit and intent of the treaties and, in so doing, protecting their own futures. Economic reports have already shown that the costs of maintaining Indigenous peoples in poverty is higher than the solutions. Those same studies show that the costs of delaying the resolution of land claims and treaty implemention for example, are higher than if those claims were resolved equitably. Even the most basic math shows that it costs more to keep an Indigenous person in a federal prison for one year ($100,000) than it does to pay for a four-year university degree ($60,000).

If you think for a minute that once Harper is done erasing Indigenous peoples, that he won't come after women, children, the impoverished, the remaining pristine environmental areas, water basins and sanctuaries all in the name of wealth and power, think again. There is no room for justice, diversity or freedom in a dictator's view of the world.

We are all compelled to act. Our reasons do not have to be the same. I can be a Mi'kmaw citizen and someone else can be a Canadian citizen, but still have a mutual interest in protecting the environment. Whether someone votes in federal and provincial elections, or like me, does not vote in elections -- we all still share the desire to protect our waterways. One can be Maliseet and someone else French, but still feel it important protect our cultures for future generations.

I have no intention of letting Harper erase me, my family, my home community or Mi'kmaw Nation. Let's put our heads together about a plan of action.




Are you denying that Harper's agenda is to erase Canada's indigenous communities?

If so, then your differences with Dr. Palmater are substantive, rather that stylistic, and you would do better to address those differences directly rather than complain about her terminology.

If not, then how could any language be too "incendiary" to use in response to such a monstrous agenda?

The way to win the battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians is to tell the truth. Sometimes the truth itself is hard to hear, but it must be spoken if we are to "educate" Canadian settler society and the indigenous people themselves. Palmater speaks the truth.

This is a battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians, and
this is not the way to win the battle.

 Generally, even more context and qualifications must be
provided when using incendiary terminology, without these, it would seem that
this article is meant to provoke, more than educate.

The historical survey presented is factual with regards to
the North American story. As a native person, like others have expressed in
their comments, I too do not believe that there is very much of a need to spent
much time reviewing previous, distant centuries, however, what is important to
me is that such facts are at last explicitly acknowledged by the Government of Canada,
and perhaps included to a greater degree in state education so that its
citizens are better informed about these critical aspects of their history,
Acknowledge the truth of Canadian history, and let's get on with it.

The more obvious and serious violations, in terms of being
knowingly and intentionally perpetrated in plain sight, belong to a different
time, in a less enlightened period, that is certainly not reflective of
Canadians living today, even those in government.

It is of value that the term “genocide” is accompanied by
its definition to show that it may properly be applied to more recent
government policies. However, we ought to concede and be cognizant of the popular
interpretation of the term, that certainly would equate such actions with the
likes of the WW2 holocaust and the 1994 atrocities in Rwanda. Notwithstanding the
fact that there were certainly historical events in North America that warrant
such an interpretation, the distinction in the scope of such events in terms of
the period of time that these massacres were carried out are worth mentioning,
to not do so, results in the implication that the current leadership of Canada
is the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler or Theoneste Bagosora. When such an
inference is made, and it certainly will be, it cripples the legitimacy of the
case being presented because such a comparison is so absurd.

The concerns expressed regarding the present situation in
terms of recent and proposed legislation etc. are certainly legitimate and are
indeed necessary topics of discussion at upcoming meetings between Aboriginal
leaders and the Crown/Government.

Actions before the courts, such as the forthcoming human
rights case brought by the First Nations Family and Caring Society, are
examples of where more of the focus ought to be, (rather than on the ubiquitous
sensationalist or targeted rhetoric that permeates throughout mainstream AND
non-mainstream media), where we may consider and evaluate proposed facts,
evidence and logical argument that gets to the core of some of the claims and
counter-claims being made by Aboriginal leaders and government officials.

The direction taken by the Conservative Government, (although
I too oppose the better part of it and share many of the same concerns
presented), effectively portrayed as an outright evil is utterly unnecessary
and will only result in more Canadians questioning or withdrawing their support
for Aboriginal concerns. The actions of this government are not surprising in
the least, they are quite reflective of Conservative ideology, true, measures
taken have strengthened the PMO while whittling away at our representative
Democracy and public participation avenues, I believe that it is right to
oppose, and someday reverse such measures, but using language that equates the
current government with dictatorships, as understood by most, is another ridiculous
notion that does us no favours.

We need strong spokespeople and leaders, and I believe Pam
that you are one of them, but I think that you’d best avoid writing in an
unnecessarily provocative style, it sets us back externally, and engenders
division internally.

Inspirational words from the late Russell Means: "I don’t want to be remembered as an activist. I want to be remembered as an American Indian patriot.” http://fb.me/1HyZMx339

I think you are almost there Pam, but not really.  I think we can all go back 500 years and retell history and link it to genocide, but in order to find a solution we only have to go back maybe 60 or so years.  I'm sure you would do a great job of explaining how Canada's determination of our identity (Indian Status) is a crime extending beyond nationhood and infringing upon countries.  This affects all sovereign Indian Nations in Canada, but Indian Nations and Peoples in the territories of the 11 Numbered Treaties are even more infected, I mean, affected by Indian Status.  There was no doubt that when the first of these Status Cards were issued in the 1950s (replacing Treaty Cards) that complacency would eventually get the best of Indian people.  Not to mention how many would lose their status and had already lost their Treaty Status previously.  Blood Quantum introduced by Lower Canada in 1850, 100 years later, the Canadian Government develops a more complex system (ironically a few years after the defeat of Nazi Germany).  Many lost status for stupid reasons, all of which the Canadian Government purposely designed to levy its obligations.  Not only that, our identity became entrenched within Canadian Law.  Our belief and pride for having Status was icing on the cake.  Then there is an ongoing fight between Status Indians and Non-Status Indians, both of which do not realize that they are both entitled to Treaty Rights equally.  Pure discrimination within our own people.  Not to mention how the Canadian Government made the decision for its taxpayers to pay the bill for Indian Act benefits.  I can go on and on here.  But I just hope you all get my drift.  We need a formal and legal identity that is developed by us, otherwise we cannot argue inherently or through Treaty. 

Listening to those of our People involved in social work, we are often told that the definition of insanity is repeating the same act over and over again without success and expecting different results. The analogy is that, I was walking down the street and I fell into a big hole. It took a great deal of effort and I was hurt real bad but I managed to get myself out. This happened a number of times but I continued to persevere hoping for better results. Then one day I decided to cross over to the other side of the street and got to my destination without falling into this big hole again.

Our wampum belts tell us of the teaching of the one bowl and one spoon and also speak of the two roads running parallel with each other. We have all this wisdom within each of us but have failed miserably to utilize any of it.

Speaking from my own life experiences and cumulative years I think that your ideas to date, on the future of our Nation are the most positive, believable and promising. To honestly believe that constructive change for our Nation will be brought on with continuing dialogue with the Harper government is sheer folly. Our recently annointed leader, Shawn Atleo has indicated his willingness to be a partisan to the sell-out of our People.


Everyone involved understood the conflict to be a race war.... During the 1750s the politics of Nova Scotia centered on issues of national identity. At various times during the decade, the British engaged in combat with several different peoples who inhabited, or passed through, Nova Scotia: The Micmac, the French ... and the Acadians.... The British governors of Nova Scotia generally believed that they were surrounded by enemies, that the Acadians, the Micmac and the French would soon find a way to cooperate and overthrow British rule. One of the principle aims of British policy, therefore, was to keep these people separated, to isolate the Micmac, the Acadians, and the French. To achieve this goal of segregation, the colonial authorities adopted two draconian policies. In 1749 the governor began offering bounties for the scalps of Micmac men, women and children. The aim of this program was to eliminate the Micmac population on the peninsula of Nova Scotia, by death or forced emigration. In 1755 the British adopted a different but related strategy: it deported the Acadians, and relocated them in safer colonies to the west. Viewed in the abstract, these two programs, to pay for the deaths of the Micmac and to relocate and absorb the Acadians, represented very simple thinking. The colonial authorities who endorsed these programs placed the inhabitants of Nova Scotia into two categories, Europeans and savages, and treated them accordingly.

As a proud Acadian I have read a lot of its history and feel quite comfortable using terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing in relation to our shared history.  I also know that it is ongoing and the fight has always been about appropriating resources for imperialist settlers.  The non imperialist settlers like the Acadians were also not treated as European just as the Metis communities on the prairies were treated in the same racist manner. 

The quote above is from the website of Daniel Paul the great Mi'kmaq historian.


Excellent article, Dr. Palmater. I hope it gets wide circulation.

Thanks for the explanation, Canuckistan, and the link as well.

M. Spector

Tom Flanagan (Harper's teacher, mentor and advisor) co-authored the 'Manifesto' in an Orwellian entitled book: "Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights".  Of course, this right-wing America Republican is only interested in stealing land and for the economic benefit of the wealthy.



Right now I have friends in Aamjiwnaang, who lost many family and friends to cancers. The life expectancy on the reserve is 55. My friend is 54 right now and he's not well. His wilfe suffered 7 miscarriages due to the contamination issues. The MNR issued many permits for emissions from petroleum companies to be released upwind of Aamjiwnaang but they had no regard to cumilative impacts of concentrating so many toxins in such close proximity to their community. This area has the lowest birth ratio in the world because miscarriage rates are 40%. The boys are the ones who are dying off. Girl to boy ratio for live boys is only 30%. 

I met people of Grassy Narrows and the Whitedog First Nations at Queens Park in Ottawa. I spoke with an elder who was crippled and trembling from the mercury poisoning where Ontario allowed the dumping of the chemical in their watershed. His baby grand daughter had cancer. All their food animals drink from mercury contaminated waters. The fish they eat are contaminated. They can either feed their kids contaminated food or send them to bed hungry. It's the only choice they have. It is genocide. Healty food is too expensive. These folks already live under the poverty line, they're too sick to work to earn money to get non contaminated foods to eat.  They go to the province and are told it's a federal matter because they live on a reserve. The Feds tell them it's not their jurisdiction because it is a provincial matter regarding pollution. In the end, they don't get the help they need, treaty rights are violated and their people have no choice but to protest and beg for help. People call them radicals. They have no choice! 

Now let me talk about the Tar Sands jobs and where those workers come from. I'm from New Brunswick and I am Metis Acadian/Mi'kmaq. My family lived for hundreds of years fishing and processing fish along the coasts in Caraquet. We also were lumberjacks and boat builders. Since Harper took power, he's increased the sale of raw lumber by 160%. He is now selling our fish whole to China. As a result, lumber mills and fish processing plants are closing down. Guess where Harper sends in his tar sands recruits? He sends them right into the high schools along the maritime coasts! They're recruiting all the young guys from there and it's the only solid paying job for most of them so they go. Sounds like a good deal for them right? Well not so much. Did you know the tar sands takes place in soil that is rich in URANIUM and that the dust generated by moving this gravel around can cause radiation poisonoing? The soil might actually be a contributing factor to the fish deformities in the Athabasca and the high incidents of diabetes and cancers seen that way. There has been no studies on the impact of this uranium exposure on Tar Sands workers!  The next big uranium mine they want to build is only 19km outside of Fort Chip Alberta! Let me tell you about them.

The folks in Fort Chip have the highests per capita levels of bile cancers at stastical averages that are blatently beyond the norm. All the muskrats in the Athabasca are dead and gone. All the food they hunt are animals that drink from the river. The animals are showing the same tumors as the people! Elders are afraid to eat the meat. The fish have tumors and deformities. My buddy caught a whitefish with two jaws. The bottom jaw had pointy eyeteeth which is odd becasue whitefish naturally don't have eyeteeth. These are EXTREME DNA deformities we are seeing here. The water they used to drink now gives them rashes upon touching it. They areas they relied on for medicinal plants are being dug up for tar sands. The Caribou are at risk of extinction. If these people want safe food, they can't afford it because it's $14 for a box of cereal, $12 to buy milk and $6 for lettuce. The only option is to work at the tar sands to earn the money to buy safe food while killing off your own people!

It's not going to get any better either. Natural gas at the Tar Sands is expected to run out in 25 years. After that, the Harper Government is relying on the creation of 13 Nuclear plants to run the operation! They want to dig up the Uranium by Fort Chip. Lord knows where they are going to end up dumping the radioactive waste. Most likely spot: Inside or adjacent to one of Canada's aboriginal communities. That way when damage happens, it is neither a federal issue because it's pollution, or a provincial issue because it's on a federal resserve. Catch 22 continues! 

Bill C-38 mandated that only 2 years max is given to review the safety of new nuclear projects. Currently 2/3 rds of the reviews by the National Energy Board have EXCEEDED 2 years. There is no scientific evidence to support that the reduction of time is justified or reasonable. In the views of many it is beyond dangerous. 

If there is one thing you can do it is this: CALL or WRITE your elected MP to share this info and send it to OPPOSITION PARTY MEMBERS as well. Our voices can make a difference. We must speak up or else we will continue to fact more of Harper's crushing grip on Canada that killing our Aboriginal citizens. 

In my opinion, the Harper Indigenous Manifesto is about erasing Indigenous peoples from Canada socially, culturally, legally and physically.

I'm unclear about this. Is there an actual document that is referred to as Harper's "Indigenous Manifesto" (the common meaning of manifesto is a type of programmatic document or declaration), or is the word being used here to refer generally to Harper's genocidal policies towards the indigenous peoples?

While investigating the maternal line of my father’s family who originally come from the Massachusetts/Maine (though they have lived in Canada for at least 150 years) and in the process of looking for information on relations between indigenous peoples and colonists from 1635 on (in an attempt to investigate claims of indigenous ancestry) I came across the phenomenon of praying towns in Massachusetts. The phrase sounds innocuous but it appears they were early reservations for indigenous people who had converted to Christianity following an outbreak of epidemic disease in their communities. The religious leaders of the colonies suggested that the ravages of disease were evidence of god’s wrath and the indigenous groups most affected were so demoralized by the number of deaths they tended to accept this explanation or simply had few other options (due to low numbers and threats of aggression by other indigenous groups) than to reside in praying towns. Their culture was decimated not just by abandonment of their own beliefs but by adoption of European ways of being including manners of dress. The people in praying towns were not accepted by colonists or by other indigenous groups. They were subject to fines for not following the rules of Puritan communities (e.g. for failing to attend town meetings) and in fact imposed fines on each other for such odd infractions as destroying lice by crushing them with their teeth. The idea of race as it is understood today didn’t play a large part in the Puritan persecution of these peoples. They saw them, and the women in particular, as spiritually contaminating (idolatry, etc.) and dangerous to their communities (read men).

An indigenous account of praying towns and spiritual life of ‘praying indians’ today is provided here http://natickprayingindians.org/history.html. This account indicates that their culture is still around and experiencing a resurgence. Reading some of the historical accounts made me almost physically nauseous (and conflicted as a potential descendant of both the oppressors and objects of oppression). For more information day to day life for indigenous people in these praying towns and in colonial America refer to "Daily Life of Native Americans from Post-Columbian through Nineteenth-Century America by Alice Nash, Christoph Strobel.

I think what happened to the indigenous people in that time frame definitely constitutes mental harm. And the attendant massacres constitute serious bodily harm and killing. So fits the criteria. But the passage of time will likely work against any case.

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