The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Throne speech commitment to reconciliation must go beyond empty words: Indigenous lawyer Pam Palmater

The federal government reaffirmed its commitment to walking “the shared path of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples” in its throne speech on Sep. 23. But Mi'kmaw lawyer and professor Pam Palmater says the government’s historical record casts doubts on those promises.

‘[This] is a repackaged set of very bare minimum announcements that they've already made and not acted on’

Pam Palmater is a lawyer, professor, activist and politician from Mi'kma'ki, New Brunswick. (Michelle Girouard)

Mi'kmaw lawyer and professor Pam Palmater wasn't convinced by the Liberal government's pledge to walk a "shared path of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples" in Wednesday's throne speech, saying that commitment to reconciliation has been little more than empty words.

Palmater says the government has failed to meet its promises of respecting Indigenous peoples' treaty rights, implementing an action plan for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), and addressing growing rates of incarceration, poverty and children in foster care.

"They're going to have to come to the table and to the media press conferences with more than words and say this is what concrete actions we have taken and here's how we have made a difference. And they haven't," Palmater told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"They dance around the outside. They want to tinker around the edges, make amendments, Indigenize things, but not actually address the root causes." 

In her speech, Governor General Julie Payette also made renewed promises to invest in clean drinking water, a mental health strategy, new infrastructure and catch-all "additional capacity-building." 

Palmater is a Mi'kmaw lawyer from the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She's also a Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Toronto's Ryerson University.

Here is part of their conversation.

How did you see the throne speech?

If you look at the entire document, we have at most a page. And you don't see anything about our rights — our land rights, our Aboriginal rights or treaty rights, our rights to self-determination. What you see is a repackaged set of very bare minimum announcements that they've already made and not acted on.

How would you rate the government's progress on reconciliation during the past nine months?

They made zero progress on anything. Where are they on a national action plan for murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls — the largest human rights crisis ever facing Canada? I mean, they were found guilty of genocide.

Thousands of people are dying. Children are being put into foster care, incarcerated. We have a lower life span.This is life and death for Native peoples. They keep promising to implement all of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] recommendations.

It makes me wonder how many governments are going to keep promising to implement all of these recommendations and not do it. You just have to look at the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples from 1996. They've literally cherry-picked a few of those recommendations. The ones they left behind deal with land, self-determination, Aboriginal rights, treaty rights — the big ticket items.

Let's talk specifically about a few ongoing current situations, starting in Nova Scotia, where a Mi'kmaq First Nation began its own lobster fishery last week. Non-Indigenous fishers have protested in response. This issue has a very long history, one that was supposed to have been resolved legally by the Supreme Court's Marshall decision in 1999. Remind us what the Marshall decision is and what it actually decided.

Donald Marshall Jr, for people who don't remember, was wrongfully imprisoned for 11 years. He was eventually vindicated, but they had a Royal Commission that said that the justice system is infected with racism against Native people.

So he ... risks his personal freedom again. He goes fishing for eels. He sells it so he can support himself and his family. And he gets charged and convicted at trial and at appeal. It wasn't until the Supreme Court of Canada said that there's a treaty here that says you don't just have the right to fish, but you have the right to fish and sell it to earn a livelihood to support yourself and your family. That treaty is now constitutionally protected. And that means that those treaty rights take priority over every other interest in this country except for conservation — and that's not something we take issue with.

So the government comes to the table and says, well, this is no good. We have a system that's already in place here. We have a whole billion-dollar industry of non-Native fishermen and commercial fishermen. So they threw these agreements in front of the First Nations that were impacted and said take it or leave it — literally beads and trinkets. But the condition was you had to give up your Aboriginal treaty rights to fish in order to benefit from these agreements.

Some of the First Nations signed those agreements because people didn't want violence. They didn't want to be incarcerated. They didn't want to be left out. This time around, however, the majority of Mi'kmaq First Nations are saying: "No, we're not signing those agreements. Why would we give up our rights?"

There's this refusal by those who have benefited from the spoils of our dispossession and genocide for centuries to accept that we might be entitled to some amount of our own resources on our own lands.- Pam Palmater

Non-Indigenous fishers say the federal government has failed to properly negotiate with everyone so that the rules are clear and so that lobster stocks are conserved. How much of this is on the federal government's shoulders?

If that was really their feeling, they would be making racist slurs and violently attacking the federal government. But they're not. They're attacking Mi'kmaq people.

There's nothing really confusing about it. It's just a refusal to accept it, because here's the other important thing about the Marshall case: we won that case. And what was the first reaction besides all of the violence against Mi'kmaq fishers trying to fish? The fishermen went to the Supreme Court of Canada and applied for a rehearing. That just doesn't happen at the Supreme Court of Canada. But there's this refusal by those who have benefited from the spoils of our dispossession and genocide for centuries to accept that we might be entitled to some amount of our own resources on our own lands.

The issue of reconciling Indigenous peoples treaty rights with the existing Canadian legal system keeps coming up on the east and west coasts. We are seeing it with the fishery now. It was highlighted earlier this year by the Wet'suwet'en opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline. What would it take to break through this impasse?

The governments have to come to the table in good faith. We have literally been saying this for centuries. That's what the treaties were about. For those who don't have treaties, there's other forms of agreements — Aboriginal rights, inherent rights, constitutionally-protected and internationally-protected rights. There's rights under our own Indigenous laws.

We've been saying all along, come to the table, negotiate in good faith, come up with agreements that reflect our priority — because that's another thing that people are going to have to accept: no other group in Canadian society has a constitutionally-protected right to things like resources or to autonomy or self-government or managing of the resources. We do. That means our rights, according to the Supreme Court of Canada, take priority over every other interest. Government is just going to have to accept that we have these rights and move forward so that we're not stuck in constant litigation and conflict.

Land Back has become a new rallying cry and slogan for a generation of mostly younger Indigenous activists in Caledonia and elsewhere. You wrote that what we're seeing now is Idle No More 2.0. What are the parallels you see to the first Idle No More movement?

Really, this growing frustration amongst community members who aren't seeing any improvements. We keep giving governments a chance. We keep giving politicians a chance ... and nothing changes.

Under Harper, the reason why we had Idle No More to begin with was because he was just so fast and furious about law and order, and extraction, and changing all of this legislation, and violating our rights. We had no say. We didn't know what else to do but to get up and protest.

But now it's like a slow burn where we're getting all the positive words — 'reconciliation, there's no relationship more important than Indigenous peoples, we're nation-to-nation, we're respecting rights, we care about you, we want to end colonization, we want to attack racism.'

But you've got to go beyond words and put it into action. And that's where we don't see fundamentally big differences in any of these governments. That's why you see, well, tensions are building again. 

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Donya Ziaee.

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