Pam Palmater Speaks Out

Pam Palmater


I am Mi’kmaw. I come from the Mi’kmaw Nation whose territory (Mi’kma’ki) comprises large portions of NB, NS, PEI, NFLD, QC, and parts of Maine. I am also a band member at Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. I descend from my father, Frank Palmater, who was a hunter and WWII veteran who fought to honour our treaties with the Crown. My grandmother Margaret Jerome was a traditional healer in our community, and my great grandfather was a chief in our community. I am the mother of two boys, Mitchell and Jeremy (ages 20 and 18), and I come from a large family of eight sisters and three brothers.

My family was politically and socially active working on indigenous issues in terms of their work, volunteerism, and activism. It was because they included me in all of their advocacy work from a young age that I dedicated my life to advocating our issues. Throughout the years, I have had the benefit of wise counsel from traditional elders all over the country. They taught me how to listen, observe, adapt, as well as how to focus, pray, and protect myself from the negativity that comes by truth-telling. During the election for example, elders from all over the country had included me in ceremonies, offered medicines, feathers, and even made me a pipe carrier—not to “win” anything, but to keep me protected from the negativity. When I went on stage at the AGM with two traditional elders walking before me and praying, I could literally feel their prayers creating armor around me. Since the election, elders have driven to my office to come and offer gifts, advice, and guidance to keep me protected as I continue my work.

(My focus has always been on protecting our sovereignty. Sovereignty is a tricky word because western lawyers and politicians and international “experts” try to define it in ways which suit their ideologies, objectives, and self-interests. To me, Mi’kmaw sovereignty is our responsibility to protect our lands, our people, our culture, and our jurisdiction to govern ourselves with our own laws, political systems, customs, practices, and values. We have our own education, legal, and trade systems which need to be protected. Our sovereignty and self-determination is key to who we are as indigenous peoples. It is because we are sovereign Nations that we were able to enter into treaties—as no citizen of a state has the right to treat with their government—that is a right reserved for Nations.

But sovereignty is something that must be asserted, acted on, and defended in order to be realized. We cannot just walk around saying we have a right to be sovereign; we must live it. Over the last few decades, our attention has been focused on state courts and what the state’s judges say our “rights” are, but these are not our courts, and they will defend the “assumed sovereignty” of their home states like Canada. We have to assume the responsibility of protecting our own sovereignty, which includes protecting our lands and our peoples.

Our peoples are the strength of our Nations and have an obligation to protect them. They are the ones we call on whenever we need people to defend our lands or our rights to hunt and fish. We call on our people to stop destructive mining practices or pipelines which can destroy entire ecosystems. We rely on our people, and so we must make their well-being a priority. If we cannot protect this generation, then we can’t speak of the seventh generation. The colonial governments, politicians, and media have done an incredible job of trying to cause a divide between our people and our leaders. They have some of our people believing that all of our leaders are corrupt and have some of our leaders believing that none of our people are willing to support their Nations. We have to find a way past all the colonized thinking, lies, deceptions, and distractions and work towards the common goal of protecting our sovereignty, lands, cultures, and peoples.

Our peoples are strong, powerful, beautiful peoples. Our Nations have survived because of the determination and spirit of our peoples. We are stronger than the oppressors. We can be the change we want for our families, communities, and Nations. We are strong, resilient peoples whose spirit has never been extinguished, despite everything that the colonizers have thrown at us. That is not to say that there are no barriers; there are many, and some of them will seem next to impossible to overcome, but no barrier is insurmountable. I wish I could say that the barriers that will be placed before us will decrease over time, but given the obsession most states have with increasing wealth, I predict that the challenges to our sovereignty, lands, and peoples will only increase. That does not mean that we should give up. It means we have to work harder, which means our leaders have to be prepared to be uncomfortable, to make sacrifices in the short term for long term gains. Our leaders are not alone, and our people are not without leaders. We have to come together within our Nations, forgive ourselves for the dysfunction caused by colonization, and move towards decolonizing, healing, and focusing on what we can do to make our Nations stronger.

Our Nations have always lived in balance, whether it be in gender, legal traditions, politics, or our relationship with the environment. However, rights-based discussions bring us out of balance if we don’t remember to include our corresponding obligations. We may have a right to hunt, for example, but we have a corresponding duty to protect the ecosystem in which those animals live out their lives. Our lands, waters, and skies provide everything we need to survive and thrive, so we have sacred obligations to protect them. Right now, we are the best hope that Canadians and Americans have of protecting the health of our lands, waters, and skies. Our traditional indigenous knowledge is holistic and has proven track records for millennia. Our rights are balanced by our responsibilities to protect all beings: plants, animals, fish, birds, and spirits—not just humans. We have to stand behind our elders and warriors when they stand up to protect our territories from irrevocable harm. The temptation to think about compensation (money and jobs) instead of obligation (protecting lands, waters, skies) will continue to distract us from our guardianship duties, but we have the power to resist.

The Enbridge pipeline project, company, and managers have proven that time and again that they cannot follow their own safety standards, cannot prevent massive spills, and try to focus instead on how well they work on clean up and remediation. Enbridge uses the standard m.o. used by mega-industries all over the world: if you offer people enough money, they eventually give in. What indigenous peoples have done is remind Canadians—and indeed people all over the world—that one cannot eat money or drink oil/gas. If companies like Enbridge destroy entire water basins, inlets, and ecosystems, we all suffer, even those of us who refused to take their monetary compensation.

I see a trend where more and more Canadians, especially those who care about health, environment, wildlife, oceans, and social justice are looking to indigenous peoples for not only their traditional indigenous knowledge but also for their position of power vis a vis the Canadian state and its corporate supporters. First, traditional indigenous knowledge is holistic and based on how the world is at a local level, instead of the more western knowledge system which is based on scientific theories about how the world ought to be. Our knowledge systems focus on the inter-relationships between people, animals, fish, plants, spirits, and everything that is essential for protecting any particular eco-system.

Secondly, as the Indigenous Peoples/Nations of Turtle Island, we have various rights and responsibilities related to these lands, waters, and skies. Some of our rights are protected in Canada’s constitutional structures and instruments, as well as various international laws and covenants. Many of us have treaties that add further recognition and protection, not just for specific activities but over territories. If we want to stop any threats to our wellbeing, like the Enbridge pipeline, we just have to keep standing up. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs has taken a strong stance on the pipeline and is just one example of indigenous peoples paving the way for other First Nation leaders, elders, youth, and community members to protect their traditional territories from destruction. I believe we can support Indigenous Nations all over Turtle Island in a variety of ways. We each have our own particular skills, personal circumstances, and challenges at any point in time. Thus, how we help stand up for Mother Earth will be different for different people at any given time. This could include writing letters, submissions, researching, legal presentations, leading protests, engaging the media, working with the public, building capacity and knowledge in our communities, fundraising, cooking for protesters, driving elders and activists to various events/protests, and so on. Every contribution helps. There is something each one of us can do, and by taking action, we live up to our responsibilities as the guardians of Mother Earth and to our children seven generations into the future.

The act of resistance is itself an act to fulfill our obligations and to honour the many sacrifices of our ancestors, without whom we would not be standing on our territories today identifying as MI’kmaq, Cree, Ojibway, and Maliseet.