Pamela Palmater

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Pam Palmater projects like crisp, clean air. Warm, intelligent, articulate, funny, passionate, committed, and razor-sharp she refreshingly blows away dusty stereotypes and archaic prejudices. She seems equally at home as a passionate advocate of Indigenous concerns and values, and a contemporary Canadian activist with a clear vision of the common purpose of native and non-native societies in building a more just, wise, and egalitarian society. She has the ability to cross divides, speaking with a clarity and purpose that everyone can understand, no matter what their origin.

The growth of civilization has been a spectacular phenomenon. It’s nothing short of miraculous that we can now intelligently look back through time to within nanoseconds of the Big Bang, and we can discern the workings, not only of molecules but atoms and subatomic particles and even their constituent quarks. The human intellect has ventured into realms that are almost literally beyond imagination.

But there has been a dark side to this progress of humanity. Too often, too many things have been relegated to the “sacrifice zone.” Species, people, cultures, land, and waterways have been exterminated or traumatized beyond the point of recognition. The growth of information has too often been at the expense of wisdom. 

As Pam Palmater reminds us, this isn’t necessary — indeed it is counterproductive. As we civilizationally branch out into the future, we have been destroying our roots. Anyone who understands silviculture will know where this leads. A healthy tree expands and deepens its root system as it grows out, the former making possible the latter. If the human project is not to wither and become barren, we need to pay meticulous care to our origins, understanding history and culture as a strength and wellspring of our future.

Pam PalmaterPam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick, she is a lawyer, professor, scholar, mother, activist, and dynamo. She has four degrees from St. Thomas University, the University of New Brunswick, and Dalhousie University including a Masters and Doctorate of Law and is now an Assistant Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. She travels incessantly to native communities across the country and has been one of the spokespeople, organizers and educators of the Idle No More movement. She came second in the Assembly of First Nations elections for National Chief in 2012 and is often called as an expert witness before Parliamentary and United Nations committees dealing with laws and policies that impact Indigenous people. “Do you have time to sleep?” I joke with her. “Occasionally,” she replies.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Pam Palmater at the IDEALaw 2016, a biennial conference hosted by the Social Activist Law Association (SALSA) at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. It’s an exciting event that brings together members of the activist and legal communities, “to discuss meaningful solutions to social problems through law.”

Christopher Majka: Pam Palmater, welcome, to unceded Mi’kmaq territory, to Halifax, to Dalhousie University, one of your alma maters, and to rabble.

Pamela D. Palmater: Thank you.

Mary Majka on the SS General BlatchfordCGM: I wanted to begin with a story. My parents arrived on these shores in 1950 as refugees — indeed, right here in Halifax at Pier 21. After some peregrinations they settled at Mary’s Point in New Brunswick, which is named, not for my mother Mary Majka, but for a Mi’kmaq woman, Mary Bidoque, who lived on the peninsula in the middle of 18th century. According to stories told, she was a guide who helped the early families of Acadian settlers, teaching them how to gather goosetongue and samphire greens from the salt marshes and how to drink spruce-bud tea to avoid scurvy during the winter. She was helpful in a thousand ways, teaching them how to survive and thrive in this new land that they came to inhabit. So grateful were they that they named the peninsula where she lived after her.

Mary Majka and Mary's Point, NBHers was a story interlaced with joy and tragedy. One day, the young Mi’kmaw man who was her spouse and whom she loved, went with a group to hunt porpoises on the Bay of Fundy. A storm suddenly sprang up, their canoes capsized, and their bodies were never found. Later, she lived with a local settler but it was said he was cruel and beat her. One night she walked out into the waves and vanished, joining the young man that she loved in the waters of the Bay of Fundy.

Throughout her life, my mother was tremendously inspired by her namesake, who lived in the same place and with whom she shared a love of the land and its natural beauty and richness. One of my mother’s great triumphs was to have the entire Mary’s Point peninsula and the surrounding marshes — 109 hectares of land — declared a National Wildlife Area as one of a series of Hemispheric Shorebird Reserves and so preserve it in its natural state forever.

When my mother died in 2014, we scattered some of her ashes on the sand at Mary’s Point and when the tide came in she was washed into the Bay to join her Mi’kmaq namesake and become part of the tidal flats where sandpipers feed before their epic migratory flight to the northern coast of South America. [See: Mary Majka: Ninety years of conservation and environmentalism.]

Semipalmated Sandpipers at Mary's Point, NB

Idle No More

I thought I’d begin with this story, because in my life this has been a powerful illustration of the symbiotic relationship — of the land, of nature, of native people, and of those who have come from “away” to these shores. Of how we all depend upon one another for our natural and spiritual health. Of the passing on of knowledge, love, and respect — and of protecting that natural and human legacy, which over the past few years has reincarnated under the aegis of Idle No More.

What do you think this movement is saying to us, native and non-native alike? What do we need to learn from Idle No More?

Idle No More RallyPDP: I think Idle No More is about saying that no new solutions are needed. The solutions have always been there. When the newcomers came we protected and took care of them, and said, “Here’s how to live off the land.” Even when we signed treaties, especially here in the Maritime Provinces, our treaties were not land-surrender or sovereignty-surrender treaties. They were “let’s live in peace and friendship” treaties. “Oh, and we promise that if anyone is shipwrecked on the shores, we will also save them. We promise to continue to protect people so long as our nations and our rights are recognized and protected.”

And if you look at the treaty negotiation minutes, they were actually very specific in saying, “You are allowed to live in these little settlements on the shore. But you are not allowed to step one inch beyond that.” And year after year after year we kept bringing complaints saying, “You are not respecting the treaties. But we are. We’re not killing you but you are continuing to take our land away from us.” The scalping-bounties that were issued on Mi’kmaq people, those were issued long after the treaties of peace and friendship were signed. So even though we had treaties that promised we’d live together nicely, only one side was. 

We have lots of individual stories of where we intermarried, where we worked together, and helped one-another. But we have even worse stories, where as more and more settlers came, and as the government became firmly entrenched, the newcomers got all the benefits, and we got all of the downsides: all the pollution, the lands taken away from us. That the treaty promises weren’t kept has been an impediment in our relationship, and I think Idle No More is trying to say, “Look, we have this treaty relationship that allows us to work together and intermarry, and to protect this land, but we’re all supposed to benefit.” Share means share. Not just one side gets the benefit and the other side doesn’t.

I think Idle No More is saying if we just go back to the original spirit and intent of our treaties we wouldn’t have these problems. So we joined hands with Canadians and said, “Come on, let’s get things back to where they were.” Because now we can see all of the ways in which we were dispossessed. You are also dispossessing yourselves by contaminating, over-fishing, over-hunting and polluting. It isn’t just impacting us. We were the first people to suffer from it. But now we all won’t have a future in this world unless you stand by First Nations and protect the lands from complete and utter destruction.

Idle No More Rally

CGM: One of the things that have tremendously impressed me in my contacts and interactions with Idle No More is the great openness of participants. If ever there were people who would have good reason to be suspicious of the intentions and actions of the “dominant” culture, it is native people, and particularly native women, who have been subjected to a dreadful history of disrespect — yet the very opposite is true. I’ve experienced a very warm and welcoming sense of, “Join with us to undertake this critical common endeavor.” [See: No less than Idle No More.]

PDP: And forgiveness. Look at everything that’s happened to us: scalping laws, forced sterilization, residential schools, abuse and torture, stealing all of our lands and resources, denying us our rights… And we’re still saying, “Canadians, can you work with us please?” We want to save the world. We want to save this territory.” We’ve had every reason not to [want to collaborate]. But because of our teachings, because we consider treaties to be sacred. We promised to protect you and that’s what we continue to do. We just want our treaty partners to give us the same benefit.

CGM: To reciprocate.

PDP: Exactly!


In her recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein wrote:

Naomi Klein and This Changes Everything“Extractivism is a non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and life continue.

Extractivism is also directly connected to the notion of sacrifice zones — places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress. This toxic idea has always been intimately tied to imperialism, with disposable peripheries being harnessed to feed a glittering center, and it is bound up too with notions of racial superiority, because in order to have sacrifice zones, you need to have people and cultures who count so little that they are considered deserving of sacrifice.”

I can’t think of a better illustration of this “toxic idea” than the history of what has happened over the past five centuries to native people in the Americas, including, of course, those who dwell in the place that we now call Canada.

How do we change this social paradigm? What are the directions, from both legal and political perspectives, that we could go in to start building a social order that is based on stewardship and not extractivism?

PDP: It’s actually very simple.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of CanadaThe Truth and Reconciliation Commission [of Canada] was very focused on the question of how we move forward. We’re still at the stage of getting at the truth and we cannot move forward with reconciliation unless we get to the truth. [The Canadian government] has to admit that it has a problem. Canada has had a long history of purposeful genocidal acts against indigenous people. That needs to be acknowledged. And then we need to acknowledge that these genocidal acts haven’t changed; they are just [taking place] under different policies. The genocide against our people continues. If we can’t acknowledge those things, how on earth are we supposed to reconcile?

I can’t sit down and say that everything’s going to be great and we’re going to be best friends while my brothers and cousins are in jail, and my nieces and nephews are in foster care, and my sisters, mothers and aunties are murdered and missing. If we can’t get to the truth and address the problem, then all of the nice stuff — let’s talk, let’s hold hands, let’s reconcile, let’s move foreword in a good way — is all superficial.

Extraction epitomizes that. We have been “extracted.” We have been eliminated in order to [take] our land. Our lands have been “extracted” from our people. Our kids have been “extracted” from our communities, to either get rid of them or change them into something else. Our women have literally been “extracted,” abducted from our communities, and [they ended up] murdered or missing. They didn’t just get lost — someone took them. That’s an “extraction” and it is a violent one that has targeted our women and children.

So, we have to get our mind around the fact that these are not just environmental issues. That they started first with the people of the land, the protectors of the land. I guarantee you that if all of the protectors of the land are extracted and eliminated there will be no protection left for the land. Not only will we die for the land, and have always been the caretakers of the land, we are the only ones with constitutional rights to stop things from happening to the land. So we are literally the last best hope that Canadians have of stopping unfettered destruction, which the Harper regime showed us can happen legally in this country. 

It’s all about political will and the politics have changed. So, I think that if we don’t deal with this concept of genocide and extraction and how it impacts people, we are not going to go forward in a good way. 

CGM: It seems to me that there are indications of a sea-change happening. There was a time when the perspectives and positions of aboriginal people in regard to such issues were completely discounted. The powers-that-be paid no attention to them at all. It’s so interesting that now, in relation to whole spectrum of issues — environmental concerns, human rights, women’s issues — how central aboriginal rights and perspectives have become, for instance with regard to natural resources development, or pipelines, or rights to clean air and water. Aboriginal people are on the literal and metaphorical front lines in terms of a wide spectrum of social, political, and environmental justice issues in Canada.

Ant-Fracking Rally

PDP: And that’s thanks to our allies. One thing about Idle No More is that we realized just how many allies we have. That there are people in the environmental movement who see that Indigenous peoples not only have the knowledge of how to protect [the land and water] but that we also have the legal and political acumen to do so. It’s the same with violence against women. By taking the lead on missing and murdered Indigenous women, we’ve also been working with women’s groups who are saying, “We have a problem here in Canada too.” Or people who have problems in the criminal justice system. We are the ones who have suffered the worst impacts so we are the experts that can help inform commissions or the United Nations [about this issue]. Now when I go to United Nations forums I’m not the only Indigenous person there; there are Indigenous people from around the world.

Anti-Fracking Rally

Idle No More RallyPeople are starting to realize that the real experts are those who love the land and who have nowhere else to go. They are not loyal to anyone or anything else but to this territory. So we are the last people who should be considered terrorists. We would never destroy our land. Yet we are labeled as terrorists for trying to protect it. It’s bastardization — making us look like the bad people. First of all, we weren’t religious, so we were labeled as “heathens” or “pagans.” Then we didn’t go along with what the colonizers said, so we were [considered] “backwards” and had to be assimilated. And now, we are not cool about extractive industries and all the inequities they cause and damages that are done, so we must be “terrorists.” They’ve always vilified us in some way to try and turn Canadians against us, and it has largely worked.

I’ve noticed since Idle No More, and really over this last decade under this horrible regime, that we’ve all come together and realized, “We only have one enemy here.” It’s the power’s that be that abuse their powers. And the rest of us? We all have the same interests. We all want clean water. We all want our kids to have a good education. We all want to get along. I don’t want to murder you; you don’t want to murder me. So why don’t we just join forces? And thank goodness we are joining forces: independent media, NGOs, groups, societies and individual citizens. Things are changing. We are on an upward trend in Canada.

Law on the Rights of Mother Earth

CGM: This precisely segues into my next question. Miya Yoshitani, the executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network has written:

“The climate justice fight… is not just a fight against the [biggest] ecological crisis of all time. It is the fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world we want. We can’t sit this one out, not because we have too much to lose but because we have too much to gain…. to transform our economies and rebuild a world we want today.”

In legal circles there has been some discussion about “whether a tree has standing,” in other words does nature have a right to be represented under the law. Indeed, in the panel we just listened to there were legal cases that concerned whether an elephant or an orangutan could have legal standing.

Law on the Rights of Mother Earth

In Bolivia, this has taken the form of what is called the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth, an initiative spearheaded by both native and campesino organizations in the country. It declares that Mother Earth, and its human and natural life systems — communities and ecosystems — as titleholders with inherent rights. These legal rights include the rights to life or existence, to diversity of life, to clean water and air, to equilibrium, to restoration after damage and to live free of contamination.

Can you see avenues whereby approaches like these could be developed in a Canadian context? Is there a way that we could evolve our legal system and society away from the bitter fruits of extractivism?

Pam Palmater: Photo credit: Michelle-Andrea GirouardPDP: Totally! Canada just needs a smack upside the head. [laughter]

With no disrespect to anyone concerned with these issues, in the panel we attended the focus was on what amendments to which legislation need to be done, and so on. But, time and time again they continue to ignore Indigenous laws, which are the first laws of this land, which are recognized by treaties and the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Canada says that they are still as alive today as they were before. 

Yet people are struggling and saying, “Oh, what do we do about these Canadian laws that aren’t working?” Well, the law that supersedes everything is Indigenous law. Rivers and rocks and trees and plants — they all have souls and spirits and they are entities, no higher or lower than what we are. And our laws do protect them. If only they would stop talking to themselves and look to the people who have been here since time immemorial, who already know how to protect our tree friends, and our grandfather rock and our grandmother mountain. We already know how to do this, but they are not listening. And that’s part of the problem. We don’t need to do anything fancy. It’s as easy as just applying Indigenous laws and we’re all good!

CGM: As a lawyer, do you see avenues for actually moving such reform in a Canadian legal context?

PDP: Yes. Even though all of our laws are not written down, our laws are lived laws. They only became laws because we’ve lived and governed ourselves with morals, stories, teachings, and incentives and disincentives to live in a certain way.

Idle No More RallyWhy do you think there have been so many protests? None of the protests that have happened in this country have ever been because native people were saying, “We want more money,” or, “We want a seat on the Senate,” or, “We want to be part of your corporation,” or, “Give us royalties.” None of them has been about that. They’ve been all about fundamentals such as, “This is our land and we are protecting the waters so that they won’t be polluted and we can all enjoy them.” Or, “We need to protect this ceremonial ground so that we can do these ceremonies that are necessary so that the bear population stays O.K.” The protests have always been about protecting these things that environmentalists, and climate change activists, and legislatures are all running around trying to take care of. But we actually have the laws and lived ways of doing that. If we [as a society] would just ground ourselves in that, we would be O.K.

CGM: It’s a real irony, isn’t it, that corporations have standing before the law as “persons” but a bear, for example, does not.

PDP: Exactly.

Truth and Reconciliation

CGM: Finally, I’m wondering about your thoughts as to how we move towards comprehensive truth and reconciliation in Canadian society. We have had a highly cathartic Truth and Reconciliation Commission in regard to residential schools in Canada. A Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has just ruled that indigenous children have had to endure decades of systemic discrimination. In the near future there will be an inquiry into the thousand plus missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. But, there is much historical and contemporary baggage in regard to the relations between native and non-native people. What are the key determinants for healing this divide?

PDP: First, we have to know the truth, then accept the truth, and then be committed to take action.

Prime Minister Harper issued an apology to residential schools survivors in 2008. That wasn’t his apology, it was a litigation settlement; it was a forced apology. The same day [the Harper Conservatives] cut funding for [aboriginal] languages and culture. The government was essentially repeating what it has always done.

So, think about two kids on a playground, and one hurts the other. What is a real apology? A real apology is taking responsibility for what you did and acknowledging what you did. “I’m sorry that I pushed you, hurt you, and skinned your knee. I’m the one who did it. I don’t have any justification for that. And I promise that I will never do it again. And you’re hurt and I need to make amends.” 

So an apology isn’t just “I’m sorry.” You have to acknowledge what you did, take responsibility for it, promise not to do it again, and make amends. It’s actually a process. That’s the healing, when you go through a real process of apology.

Idle No More Rally

So far, we have some words that were mandated by a litigation settlement. That was the apology. Where is the acknowledgement of the wrong that was done? Of the rapes, and abortions, and sexual assaults, and murders? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission [spelled out] what happened. But where has any government official apologized? That children were raped or had forced abortions in those schools? The forced sterilizations that happened after residential schools, or the ongoing theft of our children, or the over-incarceration of our people? Harper apologized for assimilation, for potential loss of language and culture, but he didn’t speak to the things that happened. So, until we [engage in] the process of apology we are nowhere near healing. And that’s as much a responsibility of Canadians as it is of First Nations people. We can’t take Canadians and the Canadian government through that process. You have to demand that of your government and everyone has to collectively admit that before we go through determining how to make amends. All of our land was stolen: how do you make amends? And that’s not an apology or a cheque. It’s giving as much land back as can be given. If people imagine they can get away with just an apology and not really making amends, then we’re not going to get there. 

But I believe that we will. Because I’ve seen a real change in Canadians and I’m really optimistic that they will force their government to do so. If they got rid of Stephen Harper then they can force the government to keep its promises. 

CGM: Thank you ever so much for finding the time to speak within your busy schedule.

Pam Palmater

So, how do we tangibly move on making amends? How do we actualize the enormous potential of activist circles in both native and non-native communities joining hands and taking back the land, and its ecological integrity, and prosperity for the people one and all, and a stable climate, and a just society for women and children and all minorities and ethnicities? Canada has an enormous natural and human richness and the potential for a society that expresses the extraordinary character of the land and its people. Yet for far too long this potential has been stunted by myopia, greed, inequality, injustice and discrimination that benefits a fractional minority at the varying expense of everyone else.

At IDEALaw 2016 a signal was given by Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, who delivered the keynote closing remarks.

Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada“It most certainly is time for Canada to engage in a new collaborative relationship with indigenous people, grounded in full recognition and respect for their inherent rights. This is off to a good start… but land resource claims and disagreements linger and fester in many parts of the country, with the views of Indigenous communities far too often disregarded as decisions on pipelines, mine, oil, forestry move ahead with millions and millions of dollars at stake.

“Respect for the important United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the key here — disgracefully, and most unfortunately, sidelined by the previous (Canadian) government, but now, embraced by the new government who were champions of it while in opposition. But we don’t yet know what that means and we don’t yet have any concrete indication of what that will look like. And that’s not just a task for government — it’s about all of us. It’s not just for Indigenous leaders to move that ahead, its not just for those we have voted into office. It is for all of us to truly understand… and to be truly proud of what that declaration sets out for us.”

I think an additional central concept is that of intersectionality, the understanding that focuses attention on the many commonalities between all campaigns for justice: feminism, climate justice, social justice, addressing economic inequality, aboriginal rights, etc. That the “intersecting” terrain between all these concerns is what is key, and what brings activists on all these issues together against a common foe — deregulated, neoliberal, corporate capitalism. 

Not only do so many other social, political, and environmental justice concerns “intersect” with those of Indigenous rights, Indigenous peoples with their values, laws, concerns, treaties and land rights represent one of the most important avenues that all of us have for making the kind of substantive and transformational change that all of us desire and are working towards. What we share unites us and there is a critical need to focus on unity. Unity in the face industrial agriculture, the toxic products of the petrochemical industry; the massive carbon flatulence of the fossil fuel industry; the merchants of death who manufacture and distribute the implements of mayhem; the all-consuming greed of Wall Street, Bay Street, the currency manipulators, derivatives traders, and all the other purveyors of get-rich schemes that profit at the expense of the environment, the climate, and the people.

In the face of these threats we all need to be called to action; from citizen to politician. We need to honour words and treaties — past, present and future. We need to understand and value our common humanity, not exploit divisions and differences. We need to understand our common destiny on this blue dot in the cosmos. We need to understand our bonds with all living and sentient beings and act as stewards of the environment, not rapacious exploiters of it. We need to understand the deep roots of human culture and the richness that our history imbues every person with.

As Pam Palmater underscores, Indigenous people “Already know how to protect our tree friends, and our grandfather rock and our grandmother mountain. We already know how to do this, but they are not listening… We don’t need to do anything fancy. It’s as easy as just applying Indigenous laws and we’re all good.”

It’s time to start listening. It’s time to keep the promises.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

Anti-Fracking Rally

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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...