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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.



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