Post Interview: Toward a new Canada
With the North American Indigenous Games in T.O., and the city looking for ways to recognize and honour First Nations, Post City spoke with Dr. Pam Palmater, a Mi’kmaw citizen, chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and one of the founders of Idle No More, about the change that needs to come
What does Canada Day mean to you?
Well, Canada 150 in particular is the worst 150 years that indigenous people on Turtle Island [the indigenous name for North America] have ever had to experience. It’s been 150 years of genocide; of sexual abuse and exploitation of indigenous women; the rape, murder and torture of indigenous peoples in residential schools; the forced sterilizations of our women; the theft of our children during the ’60s scoop; over-incarceration of our people; the murdered and missing indigenous women; poverty; homelessness.
What do you make of the indigenous flag-raising at city hall and other similar gestures of inclusion?
I think all of these things are important. Acknowledging the flags, changing street names and talking more about indigenous peoples and including them in all spaces in Toronto — that’s important. But in terms of substantive change, is it making a difference in the lives of indigenous peoples? I would have to argue no.
When you helped found Idle No More, you started a conversation. What’s changed since that time?
In terms of anything substantive, no we don’t have our land back, no there is no resource sharing, no neither federal nor provincial or municipal governments are dealing with any of the crises in cities like Toronto, but also nearby First Nations communities what has changed is the conversation in the media. It’s not perfect, but I have seen significant improvement in the number of stories and the quality of stories and the informed questions being asked and the way that different media outlets are reaching out to say, ‘How best should I describe you?’ or, ‘What are the issues I don’t know about this story that aren’t being reported?’ And I think that’s a big improvement instead of just being treated like, ‘Oh look here comes the troublemakers again.’ There is far more work and collaboration and education going on.
And what about with people, in general, not governments?
The other thing that I consider to be an improvement relates to the people themselves. Torontonians and Canadians, non-government organizations, social justice groups, environmental groups, anti-poverty groups have all reached out and said, ‘We want to work with you as partners. What can we do to help?’ So, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of allies we have and the ways in which they are offering to support us.… To me those two things have made all the difference in terms of advancing indigenous issues.
Prime Minister Trudeau made many promises to indigenous people, especially during his election campaign. Has he followed through?
No, no he hasn’t. He’s failed on all accounts, and that’s part of the problem. If we rely solely on Trudeau and his promises and not also appeal to and work with and develop alliances with Torontonians and other Canadians, then we are going to be in trouble. On every count — all of his general promises about having a nation-to-nation relationship, that no relationship will be more important than with indigenous people, and we would address violence against indigenous women, more money for post-secondary education to address the many thousands on waiting lists, unsafe drinking water, you name it.… On every single one of them, they’ve fallen down.
The North American Indigenous Games is in Toronto this month. How do these types of events help indigenous youth as well as non-indigenous people?
It helps indigenous people because sport, activity and exercise are part of our traditional ways of keeping healthy. And it goes without saying that it is amazing for indigenous youth, especially how it teaches leadership and all those core skills for nation building. And for non-indigenous people it is really a unique opportunity to get out and support sports of all kinds but especially for indigenous people and all of the indigenous cultural events that will be happening at the same time, where they really can learn more about indigenous people in a non-confrontational way where everybody gets to enjoy and learn. And maybe Torontonians will have their interest piqued in terms of supporting indigenous sports and those kinds of programs locally. And maybe they can pressure their city councillors to say, hey, maybe we should have that here in Toronto for the thousands of indigenous people who live in this city.
It’s a way for many to see First Nations in a different light, isn’t it?
Yes. Most people only ever hear bad news about indigenous peoples, but we have a lot of warriors and heroes and superstars and athletes that we are super proud of, and this is an opportunity to show that. There is more to us than what you see in the media.