Rise Up! Idle No More's Pam Palmater

by Kaj Hasselriis

When First Nations leaders and their supporters descended on Parliament Hill in January, some choosing to meet the prime minister in his office with others beating the drums of dissent outside, breathless pundits all asked the same question: Will the Idle No More movement last?

When First Nations leaders and their supporters descended on Parliament Hill in January, some choosing to meet the prime minister in his office with others beating the drums of dissent outside, breathless pundits all asked the same question: Will the Idle No More movement last?

For the answer, all you need to do is to acquaint yourself with the tenacious leaders who initiated the protests and kept them alive. All of them are women: The Saskatchewan Four—Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean, Jessica Gordon and Nina Wilson—who got together, sounded the alarm against the Harper government’s Bill C-45 and organized the first march against it; Tanya Kappo, who created the Idle No More hashtag on Twitter; Erica Lee, who managed the movement’s growing page on Facebook; and, of course, Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat in Ontario, who drew the whole country’s attention (and made the prime minister blink) by fasting for change inside her Ottawa teepee.

Spring 2013

Then there is Pam Palmater, a woman who hunkered down with Chief Spence in Ottawa and became an unofficial but unshakeable spokesperson for the Idle No More movement: Day after day, the Mi’kmaq lawyer with the blonde streak and the feather earrings dominated Canadian newscasts, talk shows and the Twittersphere. Over and over again, she made it clear that amending Bill C-45, which, she charged, would weaken Aboriginal peoples’ control over their own natural resources, is only a first step for Idle No More.

“We are standing up not only to protect our lands and waters,” she said, “but also to restore justice for First Nations and democracy for Canadians.” She called out Prime Minister Stephen Harper for being a bully and challenged the male-dominated leadership of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to listen to its people—particularly the women leading the protests’ now-iconic round dances.

Idle No More became Palmater’s national coming out party, but she didn’t exactly appear out of nowhere. This iron woman of Aboriginal activism has been developing a self-described “suit of armour” since she was a teenaged insurgent under attack by some of the same establishment forces as today. “Everything is blending now,” says Palmater. “Everything works together. There are no dividing lines. My work, my research, my politics, the law, culture—everything.”

Palmater has been an activist since the age of six. Growing up outside Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, then just outside Fredericton, her parents routinely took her to political events around the region. “If there was a First Nations organizing, I was involved in it,” she says. By the time Palmater was in high school, she was researching fishing rights and land claims and even represented her community at local treaty negotiations. The over-achieving teen served on the boards of her housing co-op and of the Fredericton Native Friendship Centre and got elected vice-president of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples’ Council before she turned 25.

Speaking out for the Mi’kmaq was how Palmater found her political voice. But it didn’t come naturally. At many treaty negotiations, she was the only woman— and a very young, relatively uneducated one at that. Federal and provincial leaders, as well as chiefs, tried to sideline her by refusing to carry on with meetings until she left the room at least or sat in the back. She always resisted. “If I could get through their initial temper tantrums, the meeting would continue,” she recalls. But it wasn’t easy standing her ground. Palmater’s heart beat fast and her voice quivered in response. Many nights, she cried when she got home. What got her through was the advice of an elder. “It’s okay to be nervous because you’re being humble,” he told her, “and it’s okay to be quiet because it means you’re listening to what other people say.”

Palmater was one of 12 children in a family that groomed her to be the first to go to university. But initially she didn’t want to go. “I just wanted to be an activist,” she says. “I didn’t see the use in school. You’re only learning someone else’s culture. I wanted to be on the front lines.”

Finally, a couple of years out of high school, living in a mouldy off-reserve house with a husband and two babies, Palmater signed up for St. Thomas University and discovered she was a natural. Pretty soon, she had a degree, a divorce and an acceptance letter to the University of New Brunswick law school. Palmater applied for as many scholarships and grants as she could get, but her real challenge was remembering her roots.

“I’ve always grown up with Mi’kmaq laws and Mi’kmaq ways of thinking,” she says, “but I had to consistently stay grounded so I wouldn’t get lost in colonial ideology on how to think and how the world works.”

Whenever she got discouraged, her family just kept reminding her of the big picture. They told her, the fight is going to be here for a long time, and we need people who are going to counter what the government is saying.

Law school strengthened Palmater’s convictions—like her belief that she’s a citizen of the Mi’kmaq Nation,not Canada—and improved her powers of debate. “I was able to win arguments with law professors on native issues,” she says. “And if I could do that with law professors then I knew I could do it at the negotiating table.”

The ability to make her case served Palmater well in the next—and worst—phase of her life, working as a lawyer for the federal government. “Everything we thought about government is true,” she says. “They don’t have good intentions for us.”

Palmater says she routinely had to defend First Nations people against racist jokes and stereotypes, even at the ministerial level—that is, when she was allowed into the room. Palmater believes that, with her being one of the few Aboriginals in the workplace, her superiors sometimes felt she would be too biased in favour of her own people.

Quietly, Palmater did her best to tackle issues that mattered to her, especially ones affecting First Nations women. For instance, she lobbied against the gender discrimination in the Indian Act that continues to define

Aboriginal identity according to male lineage—and which keeps her own children from being registered. She has also been a long-time critic of the over-representation of First Nations children in the child welfare system. Palmater actually sees both issues as part of a government strategy to gradually eliminate Aboriginal identity.

“We think genocidal policies are history because there’s no more residential schools, but the policies we have today are actually accomplishing the same thing,” she says. “The government conspires to keep women and children from the community so that there will be no community eventually.”

Throughout her 30s, Palmater juggled work as a civil servant with raising her two boys and earning a Ph.D. from Dalhousie University in Halifax. She poured most of her political thoughts into a thesis, Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity, in which she argued that Aboriginal people should determine their own citizenship, instead of it being about blood or status.

Her thesis has since been released as a book. At work, Palmater helped write the Kelowna Accord that was killed by the Harper government, then participated in United Nations negotiations toward the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But while Palmater continued to speak up in meetings, just as she had since she was a teenager, what she really wanted was to speak out in public. Finally, three years ago, shortly before her 40th birthday, she got her wish. Toronto’s Ryerson University hired her as an associate professor of political science and put her in charge of its new Centre for Indigenous Governance.

“The best moment,” says Palmater, “was leaving the federal government and knowing that no one in a million  years could tell me what to say and not say anymore.”

Twenty years earlier, all she had wanted was to be an activist. Now that she had gone to school—and kept going—it was about to become her new full-time gig. Last summer, Palmater tested out her voice on the national stage by making a run for the highest Aboriginal offi ce in the country, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). She ran against the incumbent, Shawn Atleo, because she felt he was working too closely with the Conservative government instead of advocating for Aboriginals.

“What do you have to lose by standing up to the bully?” Palmater asked over and over again during her six-week campaign, in interviews and in speeches. “Being nice to the bully doesn’t get us anything. No bully in history stopped being a bully until you stood up to them.”

Palmater argued in favour of AFN independence, saying the organization should cut its fi nancial ties to the federal government and break out on its own through fundraising, endowments and partnerships. She used social media to spark attention for issues like housing, drinking water and missing Aboriginal women and was quickly labelled the wild card candidate to beat Atleo.

However, the AFN has never elected a woman leader, and many chiefs told Palmater they weren’t ready for one yet. “There was an awful lot of dirty politics,” Palmater adds. Voters whispered that she wasn’t married, that she was a single mom and that she used to live on social assistance. Still, she got a key endorsement from former grand chief Matthew Coon Come and, despite never having served as a chief, finished second out of eight candidates.

Shortly after the vote, Palmater was awarded the Toronto YWCA’s Women of Distinction award for social justice. “Pamela is a trailblazing role model for young indigenous women,” the organization declared, “planting seeds of change that are transforming indigenous communities across Canada.”

Then came Idle No More. “What I wanted was a revolution, and now we have it,” Palmater says. “The fire is still there, we just needed to find a way to stoke the flames again and show people that there is hope.”

She maintains that Idle No More isn’t just a fight for First Nations resources—it’s a struggle to save the environment for all Canadians. Palmater believes strongly that, in the same way the federal government has an agenda to eliminate Aboriginal identity, it also has an agenda, through Bill C-45 and other legislation, to make it easier to take control of land and water to build pipelines and other projects. “The end goal of the government is always assimilation and the elimination of our rights so they can access our land and resources.”

Palmater now thinks the battle can be won.

“When the majority of chiefs decided to walk with the protesters instead of going to that Harper meeting, that was a profound moment,” she says. “I knew the revolution in our minds was taking place. Before, they would all rush to shake the prime minister’s hand, and now they all see that he just wants to assimilate us. And they would rather stand with the people and defend their rights than suck up to government.”

Palmater isn’t sure whether she’ll take another run at being grand chief and says she won’t run for Parliament. But she’ll keep plowing ahead for the First Nations cause.

“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,” Palmater says. “Right now the most important thing is to nurture this revolution and see how far we can take it.”

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