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. She is the author of Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity and blogs regularly at rabble.ca.
On International Women’s Day she won the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Social Justice. Carmelle Wolfson spoke to Palmater at her office in Toronto.
Carmelle Wolfson: Why were you given the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Social Justice?
Pamela Palmater: I received the award for the community work I do volunteering by giving information and training sessions. In some First Nations I’m doing sessions on Aboriginal and treaty rights and how they relate to modern-day laws and policies. Other First Nations want to know about First Nations education or the Indian Act and how registration under it negatively impacts our communities. I do this because I’m a strong believer that knowledge is power, so long as you’re already grounded in your traditional education and roots. If you’re not, you can get swept away by all the Canadian laws. I do information sessions from a decolonization perspective to make sure I’m not doing more harm than good.
There’s also quite a few non-Indigenous groups (associations, unions, churches, hospitals, schools and private organizations) I have worked with that want more information about Indigenous issues and to clarify all those negative myths and stereotypes in the mainstream media — not like rabble of course.
It’s very hard to fight the mainstream media. It’s very one-sided. It doesn’t always have all the facts. It’s hard to get a view on anything, let alone Indigenous voices. In that vein, I do a lot of media on these issues so that we constantly have Indigenous women’s voices represented. They have been largely ignored in Indigenous politics and issues in the mainstream media and in general conversation. You always see male leaders speaking about these issues. So it’s really important for me to make sure we’re providing mentors and positive examples of Indigenous women too.
CW: What advice would you give to young Indigenous women?
PP: It depends on who they are, because they’re all different. There isn’t one Indigenous way to be. The goal isn’t that everybody should get a post-secondary degree or be a lawyer.
When I talk to really young Indigenous girls who feel hopeless, I point to people like Shannen Koostachin. She was a 13-year-old girl who came from one of the most impoverished communities in our country — no school, no running water, horrible housing — and she brought the attention of the world to the poor school situation in her community in Attawapiskat. She died, but even in her death she is still remembered for all her advocacy.
If there is one piece of advice, it would be don’t ever be afraid to exercise your voice regardless of what people say. There will always be people who will say, you’re too this or you’re too that. I wish I had advised myself of that when I was younger.
CW: Tell me about your role at Ryerson’s Centre for Indigenous Governance.
PP: I started working here about two and a half years ago. Our main goals are to focus on research, partnerships, knowledge dissemination and capacity building in the area of Indigenous governance for First Nations. Our long-term vision is to start a Masters and PhD program in Indigenous Governance.
First Nations, especially in Ontario, identified a long time ago that they wanted to start maximizing partnerships with universities and Indigenous faculty because they’re chronically under-funded by governments. We try to maximize resources by partnering with First Nations and providing jobs and experience for First Nations researchers.
Our advisory committee is comprised of people like the Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Angus Toulouse, Chief Isador Day from Serpent River and the education director for the Union of Indians. They steer us in the direction that First Nations want.
CW: What has been your experience as an Indigenous person within the Canadian education system?
PP: It has been really difficult because when I went to school I was being taught that Indians died off a long time ago, that there were no treaty rights. If we got any mention at all it was five minutes in a history lesson. Coming from a very politically and socially active family, that was a huge conflict for me. The only identity I knew was as a Mi’kmaw person. Hearing that Mi’kmaw people died off a long time ago was very disturbing.
For me there are different kinds of education. I got a really corrupt kind of education in the provincial system, but thank goodness I had a strong family who was giving me an education in our traditions, cultures and history. The sad part for many individuals is that they’re not lucky enough to have that.
University was a refreshing change. My first degree in Native Studies was great. It solidified in me the idea that we can undo some of the damage done in provincial schools through universities. Even if they don’t have it all right, we’re on the way.
Of course, law school was very difficult because you’re not studying Indigenous legal traditions, laws or policies; it’s all about Canada. I always tried to keep the bigger picture in mind. If I wanted to be one step ahead of the colonizer, I had to keep up with my traditional education while also learning the ways in which they think, act and view the world so that I could be more effective at dismantling it.
CW: Is that what motivated you to study law?
PP: Yeah. Sitting across the table from government negotiators or people who are denying you your rights, there’s a pretty significant power imbalance. They have policy and research advisers. They have their own Department of Justice. If you’re Indigenous you don’t have all that. So every single tool we can use is a benefit to us. I went to law school to see if I could understand what they were talking about better. In my Masters and Doctorate I focused on laws that negatively affect Indigenous people and how we can counter those.
CW: What was it like growing up in Eel River Bar?
PP: I was born in Eel River Bar, but when I was small my dad and mom made a decision that we should move to focus on education to see if we could make a better life for our family.
The reserve I ended up living on was St. Mary’s, so it’s a different experience than people who would’ve grown up on Eel River Bar. St Mary’s is located in a city: Fredericton, New Brunswick. It’s Malaseet, so it’s not my cultural background. But Eel River Bar is an economically depressed area in northern New Brunswick.
My family taught us that the reserves were important because our family was there, but it was only a fraction of our territory. Living on your territory you’re very focused on your responsibilities to the land, like hunting and fishing. But the kind of politically or legally imposed experience of living on or off reserve is something very different. Living off reserve means you’re separated from your language speakers and your elders, which is why I took Mi’kmaw language later.
Because of those experiences I came to write my book Beyond Blood. It’s really about my experience growing up as a non-status Indian. Had my grandmother been my grandfather I would’ve been a status Indian. One of the reasons I couldn’t live in my home community was because I didn’t have status or band membership. It was very important for me to highlight those pieces of gender discrimination that aren’t always so obvious when you’re looking at the law.
CW: Tell me more about your family.
PP: I have two children, Mitchell and Jeremy. Mitchell is 19 and Jeremy is 18. I do a lot of this work for them. I had eight sisters and three brothers. My father fought in World War II. It was always important for my father that we stay involved in advocacy and politics to make sure that we were protecting our rights and acting on behalf of the community. So I feel it’s incumbent on me to leave that legacy to my kids since he left that to me.
This interview was edited for length.