THE FIRST TIME PAM PALMATER STOOD UP FOR HER RIGHTS SHE SAT DOWN.
She was seven years old and her older siblings were trying to explain politics and the importance of protest to her. One brother suggested that a striking way to make a statement about the inequalities that indigenous Canadians faced would be for her to remain seated during the Canadian national anthem at her school. He even went with her and to explain to her teacher and her entire class that until Canada respected their treaties and returned stolen land, this is how she would defend the rights of her Mi’kmaw nation.
Although she was nervous, she remained in her seat. It was her first act of political protest but definitely not her last.
No dividing lines
Pam is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She grew up there with 11 siblings. Yet she was denied Indian status because her grandmother married a “non-Indian”. Under the Indian Act indigenous women lost their Indian status when they married non-native men, while non-native women gained Indian status when marrying native men.
This blatant sexism in the Indian Act became one of the motivating forces for Pam’s work on behalf of indigenous women, and a recurring theme in her writing.
At St. Thomas University she received her BA in Native studies and history. She then went on to receive her Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree at the University of New Brunswick, complete the Bar Admission Course for the Law Society of New Brunswick, and then on to receive her Masters of Law Degree (LLM) and her Doctorate in the Science of Law (JSD) specializing in Aboriginal Law, both from Dalhousie University.
Her education was never separate from her activism. “Everything works together,” she said. “There are no dividing lines. My work, my research, my politics, the law, culture—everything.”
Pam’s doctoral thesis was published in book form, entitled Beyond Blood: Rethinking Aboriginal Identity and Belonging. In it she argued that the current criteria for determining Indigenous identity, including blood quantum, are particularly discriminatory against women and their descendants.
She also examined how various band memberships’ reliance on these criteria perpetuates the original sexist discrimination. Pam contends that Indigenous communities themselves must determine their citizenship based on ties to the community, not using the criteria of the colonizers based on blood or patriarchal status.
Pam became a senior Director at Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in the areas of treaties, land claims and self-government. She also worked as legal counsel at Justice Canada on First Nation issues. Eventually she became an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University in Toronto, and also holds the Chair in Indigenous Governance there. No matter the position or job, Palmater has never shied away from tackling difficult subjects or speaking hard truths.
‘I wanted a revolution’
In 2012 she became one of the strongest and most prominent voices in the Idle No More movement which swept the country and ignited flames among indigenous peoples worldwide. She explained: “Idle No More is unique in that it includes non-natives as our allies.”
Pam also accused then Prime Minister Stephen Harper of being a bully, and a dishonest one at that.
“This racist stereotype [of the “crooked Indian”] is recycled again and again when Harper is pressed to account for the fourth world conditions in some First Nations. What Harper never tells Canadians is that in giving First Nations x million dollars, that he has given them half of what is needed to provide the specific program or service.”
In the same year, she made a bid for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). because she felt that the AFN was failing indigenous people. She finished second.
Through her campaign, she became a voice for discontent. She’s fine with her loss, she says, because, with 141 votes, it means she may have disrupted the status quo for 141 chiefs.
“For everybody else it might not be over, but for me, it’s over. . . and I have no interest in becoming the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
“It was never about that. I wanted a revolution. And now we have a revolution.
Waiting for justice from Justin
Pam continues to expose and challenge the racist criminalization of indigenous people. In a recent blog post she calls on Justin Trudeau to live up to his promises to repeal laws imposed on First Nations by the Harper government—particularly the laws that make trading in tobacco a crime.
Tobacco has a long history within indigenous communities and its trade by indigenous peoples was constitutionally protected. Yet Harper’s Conservatives created a crime where none existed and turned indigenous traders into criminals for conducting business.
“Characterizing Indigenous peoples who engage in the tobacco trade as gangs, criminals or members of organized crime is racist, factually wrong and is itself a form of hate crime insofar as it paints all Indigenous peoples in the trade as criminals and dangerous,” says Pam.
“Indigenous nations have just as much right to provide food, clothing and shelter for their families as anyone else, including Canadian businesses, like convenience store owners, who do not have constitutionally protected rights to engage in the tobacco trade.”
Of genocide and hot dogs
The issue of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) is another issue close to Pam’s heart. She believes the inquiry does not have a wide enough focus.
She argues that “an in-depth look at police-involved disappearances, sexual assaults, and murders of Indigenous women should be included in a national inquiry into the high rates of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.”
Pam never relents. She seizes every opportunity to make us all face up to the long-running and persistent harm and neglect done to our Indigenous people. The federal government decision to spend half a billion dollars in 2017 to mark Canada’s 150th birthday drew this response: “Arguably, every firework, hot dog and piece of birthday cake in Canada’s 150th celebration will be paid for by the genocide of Indigenous peoples and cultures.”
For her advocacy, Palmater has been repeatedly recognized with awards such as the 2012 YWCA Woman of Distinction Award in Social Justice, the 2012 Women’s Courage Award in Social Justice, the Bertha Wilson Honour Society 2012, Canadian Lawyer Magazine’s 2013 Top 5 Most Influential Lawyers in the Human Rights category, Canada’s Top Visionary Women Leaders 2014, the 2015 UNB Alumni Award of Distinction, the J.S. Woodsworth Woman of Excellence Award in Human Rights and Equity, and the Margaret Mead Award in Social Justice from the International Community Corrections Association (ICCA).
She has continued to be a voice for indigenous people and for holding any government accountable which breaches their fundamental rights, including their right to protect the environment for all of us. And she never minces words.
“Trudeau’s approval of the Kinder Morgan expansion is proof, once and for all, that even the most charming leader, with the biggest tears and sincerest sounding apologies, who is ‘absolutely’ committed to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, can, and will, ignore those rights in the name of corporate interests every single time.”
If it feels good it’s not reconciliation
Recently, she was chosen to give the 2018 Woodrow Lloyd Lecture at the University of Regina. In typical Palmater style her lecture was entitled “Truth and Reconciliation in Canada: If It Feels Good, It’s Not Reconciliation.” In it she commented on the public art installations and other gestures.
“The feel good stuff tends to be superficial and doesn’t address substantive oppression and dispossession.” True reconciliation, she argued “will only be found in the discomfort that comes with the exchange of land, wealth and power.”
And we can be sure that Pamela Palmater will keep finding ways to expose Canadians to this discomfort until there is justice for all the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, justice for the environment we all inhabit, and justice for the many indigenous people living without the basic necessities of life and without their full constitutional rights.
As she once said about her work: “Doing this is not a decision. It’s not an education. It’s not a job. It’s a responsibility, and so I can’t ever not be doing this.”