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Photo by Hugh Wesley

Interview with Pamela Palmater

The head of Ryerson University's Centre for Indigenous Governance talks about the crisis in Attawapiskat and other First Nations reserves

By Ken Gallinger

Q I was chatting with a friend about Attawapiskat, and she said, “The real problem is that no one gives a damn what happens to those people.” Is that a fair comment?

A It is a fair comment. If they thought of us as human beings, there would be some minimal form of compassion. You see pictures of suffering in other countries, and it evokes human empathy. That’s not the case with First Nations. It’s no secret that in earlier times we weren’t thought of as human beings, but how far have we come? We know what is happening and allow it to happen.

Q So what’s that about? There’s an earthquake in Haiti, and there’s a massive outpouring of immediate help. Why is that not happening here?

A Because there’s culpability — guilt. There’s a crisis here, and people need to help. But the crisis won’t go away until we deal with the real problem, the underlying issues: we have several hundred years of theft of our land, theft of our resources, residential schools, discrimination in the justice system. Caring would require you to say, “What we see now is the direct result of those actions.”

Q You use the expression “the real problem.” What is the real problem in a nutshell?

A Canada is not a post-colonial country. We are still in the business of “colonizing Indians.” We have an Indian Act that completely ignores our right to be self-determining. If you take away a people’s right to control their own well-being and then control it in such a way as to deliberately keep them in stark poverty, you end up with the situation we have.

Q You’ve said before, and you’ve just said again, that the government deliberately underfunds First Nations communities. . . .

A Yes! And that’s not rhetoric.

Q Deliberately?

A Deliberately. Keep in mind that Indian policy was “temporary” policy. Indian law in Canada is based on two assumptions: one, Indians are slowly dying off; and two, we’re inferior and can’t manage our own affairs.

Q And if we keep them poor long enough, they’ll go away?

A Yes. Exactly. As long as the overall objective of Canadian society is the eventual assimilation of all Indians, why would we even think of funding at an adequate level? We receive less than 50 percent of what provincial residents do. If you don’t fund reserve life at an adequate level, you’re encouraging migration off the reserves.

Q If you say they are deliberately underfunding, with the objective that First Nations will disappear, you’re talking about cultural genocide.

A Yes. It meets the definition of cultural genocide. But it’s not just cultural genocide. It’s actual genocide. You have a policy aimed at assimilation, which means we no longer exist. Any policy that has as its goal the elimination of a group of people fits the Geneva Convention definition of genocide. Whether or not people are physically killed, it clearly fits. Chronic underfunding deliberately creates poverty; medical information tells us this poverty has led to our premature deaths; it’s cut our life span by seven to 20 years because of overcrowding, lack of access to food and water, etc. So you go straight from purposeful, chronic underfunding to poverty, to death.

Q Is the agenda of assimilation, or integration (to use a less painful word), by definition racist?

A Absolutely. Why must we always give way to the majority culture? This isn’t like we moved here and decided we want to be a part of Canada. We were here!

Q But we’re all here now. And when you look at the circumstance of communities like Attawapiskat, could it ever be compassionate to say, “Those people would be better off integrated into mainstream culture?”

A No. No. I’m a lawyer and a professor. But I still have my Aboriginal identity and my treaty rights. Why must I forsake one to partake of another?

Q But you’re not living on a reserve. You’re in downtown Toronto.

A But I’m still on traditional lands. My connection to the land has nothing to do with Indian Act boundaries. It has everything to do with traditional Mi’kmaq territories.

Q I guess what I’m wondering is this: maybe Attawapiskat’s problems have nothing to do with being Aboriginal. Maybe the issue is remoteness, being far from services.

A No. Canada created this situation. We went from 60 or 80 traditional nations, with large territories used at different times of year, to 634 tiny communities, far away from one another, far away from traditional lifestyles. Now you have the audacity to say, “They are not viable.” These territories are very viable, but viable for whom? De Beers has no trouble pulling $500 million out of the [diamond mine] right outside Attawapiskat. You mean to tell me Attiwapiskat couldn’t have a viable community? Those diamonds are ours, but we don’t share in the profits.

Q One of the ideas that’s touted is moving to individual ownership of reserve land by First Nations people. Is that a solution?

A Why?

Q Well, I lived in a manse for most of my ministry. And I was a good tenant, fixed up stuff, blah, blah. But 10 years ago I bought a house, and my attitude toward maintenance is different now that I own the property. Is that just because I’m a white guy?

A Yes it is. You come from a completely different culture and set of ideologies. In order to care about something, you have to own it. The whole basis of your society is first-come, first-served — possession is everything. By not owning the land, we have more responsibility. It’s for our children and grandchildren. So we have more obligation to protect it than someone who owns it and thinks they can do whatever the hell they like.

Q So what is the solution?

A Canada has to decide that we are going to move forward — that not only are you here to stay, but so are we. We have to start sharing the land and resources. Stop trying to assimilate us. Stop trying to get rid of our language and culture. Resolve our land claims. Concretely, we first need to deal with the emergency — with the crisis of poverty. Next, we have to work on the relationship. Let’s start recognizing First Nations’ jurisdiction over their own lives. We’re not saying we want to control you. We want to control ourselves.

Q And if we succeed, what will Canada look like 20 years from now?

A Canada will be wealthier, healthier (and I don’t just mean First Nations, I mean all Canadians) and back as a leader in human rights and democracy. It would change the face of Canada. In the meantime, it costs more to keep us in poverty than it would to let us be fully human. So why on earth do we keep making stupid decisions?

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