Dr. Pamela Palmater, BA'94
By Mandy Richard, BA’18

As students, we are trained to listen and take notes simultaneously. But occasionally, you will encounter natural-born storytellers who leave you awestruck. And when Dr. Pam Palmater began to speak, I subconsciously put down my pen and listened.

Describing Pam as powerful, intelligent, and bold is an understatement. With eloquence and grace, she fearlessly and confidently challenges the issues faced by Indigenous peoples. This Mi’kmaw woman has a warm and gentle presence, but a voice that pierces into your spirit. Like every good storyteller, her words stay with you

Pam is a lawyer, author, and social justice activist from Ugpi’Ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation) in New Brunswick. She is the former spokesperson, organizer, and educator for the Idle No More movement, and currently holds the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.

For more than 25 years, she has tackled a wide range of issues affecting Indigenous peoples such as poverty, housing, education, and Aboriginal treaty rights. She has worked as a human rights investigator at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, currently sits on the Ontario Human Rights Commission Community Advisory Group, and has worked with human rights organizations like Canadian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International.

Her passion for social justice began in childhood. She comes from a family of eight sisters and three brothers, and most of them have always been politically involved. Since she was a child, she participated in meetings, protests, and cultural events. Pam says this participation was never just about advocacy or wanting to do volunteer work.

“I just always did that, and never envisioned a time where I didn’t do that. For my family, it was an expectation that you were always working in whatever capacity possible to defend your nation, to advocate for your nation, to rebuild your nation.”

While continuing to defend and advocate for her nation, Pam pursued post-secondary education. She received her Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Native Studies and History from St. Thomas University and her law degree at the University of New Brunswick. She went on to complete her Masters and Doctorate in Law from Dalhousie University Law School, specializing in First Nations law.

Canadian Universities Take Steps Towards Reconciliation
There has been a recent shift in Canada as universities take first steps towards reconciliation and indigenization. Pam acknowledges the importance of this shift, but says there is a lot more work to do for true reconciliation.

“While schools and universities have been a really destructive colonial force, if used correctly, they can also be a revitalizing and healing force. You could learn your languages.

When I went to STU, I learned Mi’kmaw and Maliseet languages. Colonization had taken that away from us, but STU helped bring some of that back.”

Pointing to a piece of Indigenous art within the room, Pam makes the distinction between superficial reconciliation, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Haida tattoo, and true reconciliation.

“Hanging a piece of native art in a classroom, that’s nice. It’s inclusive. Indigenous peoples that come into this classroom will feel that their identity is reflected, but if they don’t have the funding to get to this university, they are never going to see the art on the university wall. And that is what real reconciliation is. A number of treaties promised free education, so this university and all universities should literally be full of Indigenous peoples and they’re not.”

Nation Builders Leading Canada Towards Reconciliation
The path Pam chose as a young person was very different from the path she was encouraged to take. Many suggested she consider a helping profession like midwifery or social work to help Indigenous communities. She knew that was not the right fit for her. She wanted to be a nation builder.

“There was no force encouraging nation building. No one saying we need lawyers, leaders, policy advisors, analysts, public speakers, and critical thinkers to rebuild our nations.”

Pam highlights some of our Indigenous heroes, like Cindy Blackstock who Pam describes as a “woman warrior,” fighting for proper and overdue funding and adequate resources for Indigenous children and youth in the foster care system. Or Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, the first Indigenous woman appointed to the Senate. Or the half dozen grandmothers currently camping at Sisson Mines.

Nation builders provide substantive action that is missing from Canada’s government, Pam says. Reconciliation requires more than attending a cultural event or a political land acknowledgement. These actions are a start to balance the unjust relationship; however, Pam explains that real reconciliation will not be easy.

“I think the message is to move away from things that feel good. If it feels good, it’s not reconciliation. If you are just wearing a Native t-shirt and that feels good? That’s not reconciliation. If you left all your family’s land in your will to the local First Nations because it was stolen from them, and maybe that feels a bit uncomfortable? That’s reconciliation.”

It will feel very uncomfortable when Indigenous governance has a seat at the table with the colonial government, she adds, but that is what real reconciliation is all about.

The responsibility of reconciliation falls onto every citizen in Canada, she says. There has been a positive shift towards more respectful reconciliation with more Canadians becoming aware of the horrific history and continuing current issues of Indigenous people. But Pam says there is a difference between good and bad allies for Indigenous peoples.

“The good kind of ally is a respectful ally, one that lets Indigenous peoples take the lead on Indigenous issues, lifts up an Indigenous voice, creates space for Indigenous people, supports them in ways that they want to be supported. And then there is this saviour ally, where they believe they know the solution to what will fix us. Instead of listening to us, they speak for us. They offer solutions on our behalf. And when there is an opportunity to speak, they become the expert on Indigenous issues and let Indigenous voices fall to the way-side. I think the saviour allies of the past did as much damage as the governments did.”

My attentive gaze breaks for a moment, interrupted by the vibration of a cellphone. Pam realizes her ride has arrived. The interview felt like a few minutes. I could have sat there for hours soaking in her wisdom and passion for these issues.

During the interview, I spoke a little about my personal story, and I realized this woman is someone whom I aspire to become. Just as we are getting ready to leave, I thank her for her time. She thanked me for sharing a bit of my story, signed a copy of her book, and gave me a hug. I opened the signed book and it read “Keep up the good work. We need warriors like you,” and in that moment I knew that I, too, want to be a nation builder.

The original piece was edited for length for the web. To read the full story, please see the winter 2018 issue of Connections HERE.