The Silent War – Government Control of Indigenous Identity

This blog represents excerpts from the talk that I gave last week on the issue of Indigenous Identity. I realize, however, that many of Indigenous peoples can’t access public lectures, conferences, and other similar forums for information and debate. I therefore decided to include this information in my blog, knowing that there are still many of us who do not have access to computers or the Internet. Canada’s cutting off the water supply at Constance Lake First Nation so that the community has barely enough to drink but not bathe, despite Canada’s “endorsement” of UNDRIP, is but one example of how many of us are forced to manage our extreme poverty and do not have computers, Ipads or TVs. Thus, many do not have the ability to access the kinds of information found on the Internet which many of us get to take for granted – like blogs. So, here are some excerpts from my discussion about Indigenous identity: I wear my Indigenous identity proudly, but have to carry on my back the other identities imposed by government through law and policy. I am forced therefore, to explain my Indigeneity as being comprised of two separate but conflicting sides which are constantly at “war”. The first is my identity as experienced by me internally – within my own heart as an individual and communally with my family, extended family, community and Nation. The second is my “lived experience of Indigenous identity” – i.e. my identity as experienced externally – through relations with both Canadian society and the state. My own identity has shaped by the histories, stories, lessons, and practices passed on to me by my large extended family. This has shaped my worldview, values, and aspirations – it is essentially what some might refer to as my cultural identity. My experience of identity on the other hand, has been shaped entirely by others – by school mates, teachers, employers, friends, neighbors, historians, judges, politicians and governments. While my own Indigenous identity is strong and has survived the test of time, it is scarred and bruised by my lived experience of identity and the ongoing attack on my identity through government law and policy designed to assimilate Indigenous peoples into the body politic. So who am I? I am a Mi’kmaq woman. That is my identity, recognizing however that Indigenous identity is a relationship – a two-way street between myself and my nation. What I mean by this is that my nation cannot exist unless its citizens, like me, both recognize it AND support it. Similarly, I can assert my Mi’kmaq identity but it requires my nation to both recognize AND support me as a citizen. This mutually dependent relationship has been the way of the Mi’kmaq Nation and its citizens since time immemorial. Yet, this relationship is also where Canada has chosen to erect barriers in order to divide, conquer, and destabilize us, with the ultimate goal of reducing our numbers until we are assimilated. My identity as a MI’KMAQ WOMAN has been in constant conflict with these barriers. My identity as a Mi’kmaq woman means that I am a Teacher who is responsible to pass on our history, language, culture, and laws. I am a Warrior who is responsible to protect our nations, territories, trees, animals, and citizens. I am a Caregiver who is responsible to care for my children, mothers, grandmothers, and aunties. I am also responsible to be a Leader in my own life – to stand up for what is just regardless of the consequences. I am responsible to be a Living Example – to live our values for our young ones to see so that they know how to live in balance. We are not to live in wealth that destroys the earth nor in poverty that destroys our spirit. Some have discounted our Indigenous values and traditions as being ancient and irrelevant in modern times. In my opinion, these traditional values are more important today than ever before. I believe they are what will inspire our people to action, stand up against the current injustices and reclaim our spirit and identities. However, despite my own identity as Mi’kmaq, I have been labeled as “ABORIGINAL” by others. This is a legal and social construct of the Canadian state which lumps my Mi’kmaq identity in with the generic terms of Indians, Inuit and Metis as if we were all just one race of people with the same cultures and world views. Taiaike Alfred, in his book Wasase, explains that “aboriginalism” amounts to little more than “racialized violence and economic oppression meant to bring about a silent surrender” of who we are as Indigenous peoples. I have resisted surrender – but the battle seems to be never-ending and I fear that most Canadians are not even aware of what is at stake for us. They see our identity only in terms of unfair entitlements and special treatment. Yet, my identity is primarily about my responsibilities and relations with my Nation and my connections with our traditional territory of MI’KMAKI. Mi’kmaki represents the seven distinct districts of Mi’kmaq territory including NB, NS, PEI, NFLD, parts of Quebec and Maine. With the exception of the last two years, I have spent my entire life living within my traditional territory and those lands are an essential part of my identity. My heart aches if I am far from home for too long as I know that my responsibilities to my territory does not diminish when I live elsewhere. However, the Crown has put limits on my ability to fully enjoy my Mi’kmaq identity through the imposition of provincial boundaries and policies that restrict my rights on a provincial basis. I am considered a NB MI’KMAQ and therefore not entitled to hunt or fish in NS; enjoy my treaty rights in PEI; or have a say in what happens in Mi’kmaq territory in NFLD. Even within NB, the provincial government has drawn an arbitrary line called the Ganong Line telling my Nation and the Maliseet Nation whose territory is whose. These barriers are all externally imposed and designed to divide our Nation. Within Mi’kmaki, my home community (or band) is EEL RIVER BAR FIRST NATION located in northern NB. Yet this is not even the location of our true community. It is the location to which my original community was relocated, as the lands on which they had originally occupied for their more permanent settlements were considered too valuable to be occupied by Indians. However, my family has now lived at Eel River Bar for many generations and therefore we have strong connections to that specific part of our territory as well. Yet, despite my own identity as a Mi’kmaq woman and the essential role that my connections to the land play in that identity, INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) has determined that I am a NON-BAND MEMBER and therefore not entitled to live in my home community or have a say in its governance or future. Unfortunately for many Indigenous peoples, our own communities have now taken over Canada’s role and exclude our own people on the same basis. I have learned how to survive in this war against my identity and live my Mi’kmaq identity despite the fact that I am a non-band member. I proudly assert that I am an ON-TERRITORY MI’KMAQ citizen. After all, I have always lived on my traditional Mi’kmaq territory and have acted always in protection of it. This is an important part of my identity and is really inseparable from it. Even now that I live in Toronto, I still have a strong connection to Mi’kmaki and maintain those connections. This is not easy to do when I am legally excluded from my community, but is necessary to ensure that identity for my children. As I explained earlier, there is consistent conflict between my personal identity and my lived experience of identity. I may feel like I am an on-traditional territory Mi’kmaq, but am still dismissed as an OFF-RESERVE INDIAN or URBAN ABORIGINAL. Non-Indigenous writers like Tom Flanagan, Alan Cairns and others try to persuade Canadians that because I don’t live on reserve, that this somehow makes me less of a Mi’kmaq person. To them, the movement of Indigenous peoples off-reserve is as inevitable as their corresponding loss of identity which is prophecized. Yet, there were never any reserves for the many thousands of years that we have existed as Mi’kmaq peoples. Reserves are an artificial creation and imposition of the government which were meant to control us and dispossess us of our traditional territories. The goal was to open up our lands for settlement. Why would I ever define myself in a way which legitimizes Canada’s theft of our lands? What kind of message would that be to my children? All of that lived experience of Indigenous identity which has been imposed from those outside my Nation ignores the fact that my identity also comes from the many great Mi’kmaq people who have made up our Nation, like my GREAT GRANDFATHER LOUIS JEROME. He is said to be one of the last traditional Chiefs of my home community and dedicated his life to travelling throughout Mi’kmaki to maintain relations amongst the seven districts. His daughter, my GRANDMOTHER MARGARET JEROME was a well-known healer of our community and had extensive knowledge of the traditional uses of plants and herbs in healing our people. She was so good at what she did that even non-Indigenous doctors asked for assistance in times of disease. Her son, my father, FRANK PALMATER quit school in grade three to care for his large family and then fought in the WWII to protect our territories. To him, the treaties we made with Britain were worth fighting to protect. Yet external determinations of my identity by the Canadian state ignore those connections. To INAC, because my grandmother married a non-Indian, she was no longer considered an Indian and therefore, not entitled to be a band member – nor were her children or grandchildren. Canadian laws turned my grandmother from a Mi’kmaq to an Indian to a non-status Indian and then back to Indian again in 1985. They are now referred to as BILL C-31’ers – those who got their Indian status restored in 1985 when the United Nations found Canadian laws discriminatory. My relations are considered lesser Indians than other Indians and often discriminated against because of their Bill C-31 status. As a result, this has meant no membership in our home community, no residency rights, or ability to participate in our government. All of these external laws create divisions, inequities and injustices that focus our attention on our externally imposed identities. Canada has successfully diverted our attention from our real identities. We are so busy trying to combat discrimination in Canadian laws that some of us have forgotten that that we must put as much energy, if not more, into protecting our Mi’kmaq identities. Growing up, I did not link my Mi’kmaq identity to my registration status under the Act. My family thankfully protected me from that hurt for as long as they could. I often identified myself as a TREATY INDIAN because the Mi’kmaq signed numerous peace and friendship treaties with the Crown. My family made sure I knew those treaties very well. These treaties, like those signed in 1725, 1726, 1752, etc, protect many of our Indigenous rights to hunt and fish for example, but are not the source of those rights. I therefore grew up knowing that our hunting, fishing, and gathering activities in which my large extended family participated were an essential part of who we were as Mi’kmaq peoples. Yet, the assertion of myself as a Treaty Indian is often met by a swift denial from federal and provincial governments. It is their position that I am nothing more than a NON-STATUS INDIAN. Since they only recognize status Indians as having treaty rights, governments tell me I don’t have a right to call myself Treaty Indian. Why do they call me a non-status Indian? Because there is a preference in the Indian Act for those who descend from the male line versus a female line. Had my grandmother been a grandfather, I would be registered under the Indian Act as an Indian (i.e. have status) as would my children. The changes that were made in 1985 in Bill C-31 did not fully remedy this legislated form of gender discrimination. Again Canada has directed our attention away from my status as a treaty descendant to one of non-status as an Indian. For every identity I assert in this battle, Canada has created another one to counter it. So, some say, well that’s OK Pam, soon under Bill C-3 you will be a STATUS INDIAN. In fact, I will be a section 6(2) status Indian, which is the lesser form of status. That status cannot be transmitted to my children. Even if my home community of Eel River Bar First Nation “allows” me to become a band member, my children will be excluded. Why? It’s not because Canada will exclude them from band membership under the Indian Act – Eel River Bar now controls its own membership and does the excluding for Canada. Layered on top of that lesser type of status will be the fact that it results from Bill C-3, I will be known as a BILL C-3’er, which is just as bad, if not worse, as being known as a Bill C-31’er. I will be considered a “new” Indian which discounts my lifelong identity and contributions as a Mi’kmaq woman and citizen. Furthermore, Indigenous women and their children impacted by Bill C-3 will NOT get to make claims for lost treaty, land claim, or other benefits despite the court finding of gender discrimination. Some of us have experienced the same kinds of loss of language, culture, and identity as those is residential schools, but because those affected are primarily Indigenous women and their children, they are treated as less worthy of being compensated for severe breaches of their Charter equality rights. So, again some might argue that government control over our identities only impacts my Indigeneity and there are many other aspects of my identity on which I could focus. After all, I am the MOTHER of two of the most amazing Mi’kmaq men – Yet even that identity is challenged by the state. Remember the 60’s scoop? Just as residential schools were being shut down all over the country, during the 1960-80’s, child welfare agencies were empowered to literally scoop up thousands of Indigenous children from their homes and place them in foster homes or permanently adopted them out without the knowledge or consent of the parents. Over 11,000 status Indian children were scooped and that number obviously does not account for all those children never registered as status Indians. These children denied their identities, languages, cultures, families, communities & Nations. Many Canadians misunderstand that period in our history to be over, which is the reason why it is labeled as the 60’s scoop – something that happened in the past. Yet Indigenous children NOW make up 60% of all children in care despite the fact that they are less than 4% of the population. We have HIGHER levels of our children in care now than in the 1960s!!! Canada and the provinces have continued with their policies of assimilation by TAKING OUR CHILDREN from us. Bill C-3 might not be directly physically removing our children, but will legally, socially, and politically remove them from us. Under Bill C-3, MY CHILDREN will be denied their status and thus their band membership, Mi’kmaq citizenship; and treaty rights. On some First Nations, no band membership means you can’t live on reserve and will be evicted. In that way, my children and many others could be prevented from physically being with their family. It is like Canada is taking away my right to parent my children and raise them as Mi’kmaq. This is not because they are any less Mi’kmaq than any status Indian person, but is solely because Canada has never shifted its position of assimilation. Canada is saying that they are not Mi’kmaq, but instead Canadian citizens who must adopt a different culture, identity, world view and even potentially a different place to live. Canada is ensuring that those children who are not stolen from us by Child Welfare agencies will still be removed from us by the Indian Act. This kind of law and policy which targets our children is one of the greatest threats to our future. Some of the more superficial persuasion might tell me to ignore all that and focus on my career and professional identity as a lawyer, but even my professional identities are challenged and belittled by state actors and society simply because of my Indigeneity. As an Indigenous person, my being a lawyer means that I am automatically part of Flanagan’s ABORIGINAL ELITE who are assumed to have never suffered the poverty and discrimination of “real” Indians but take advantage of all their benefits and affirmative action programs. Similarly, as a lifelong VOLUNTEER AND ACTIVIST, I have dedicated a great deal of my life to advancing our cause and helping to build capacity within our communities. However, in the Flanagan, Widdowson, Gibson, Tax Payer’s Federation and National Post world, I am part of the ABORIGINAL INDUSTRY that is allegedly “sucking First Nations dry”. With all of these battles, I can see how so many Indigenous peoples become confused about their identities, their relations with their communities and Nations, and with Canada generally. It feels like I have been engaged in this SILENT WAR MY ENTIRE LIFE which began so early that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in it. Something as essential to our individual and collective well-being as identity should not be part of the spoils of war. Liberal democracies pride themselves on fostering conditions that allow individuals to live the good life – the life we choose for ourselves. Why then can’t Indigenous peoples choose their own lives? Indigenous peoples have suffered enough with the loss of lands, natural resources, and water ways. They have survived wars against them, relocations, residential schools, the 60’s scoop, overrepresentation in jails, wrongful deaths, murdered and missing Indigenous women, and a whole host of assimilatory laws and policies. Attacking their identities hits us at our core. What is the solution? There are far too many complexities to get into in this blog, which is already too long, but certainly our Indigenous identities must be clearly and completely within our own hands – no more legislative control over who we are. We will likely still have internal struggles to de-colonize ourselves and rid of the divisions within our Nations, but they will be our struggles and we can work it out. In the meantime, legislation like the Indian Act simply cannot endorse gender or other forms of discrimination. Any initial cost that there might be to Canada will be far outweighed by the costs saved down the road. Poor health, violence, and suicide that results from people without an identity – people without hope or purpose – cost Canadians far more than healthy, secure communities. I aspire to be a contributing citizen of a strong, vibrant, inclusive Mi’kmaq Nation, which is self-determining and encourages participatory governance over our land and resources, international and inter-tribal relations, and economies that are based on our traditional values and principles that have evolved to address modern situations. That’s my aspiration for myself and my children so that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will never have to serve in this war against our identities and can instead focus on re-building the spirits and relations of our Nations.


  1. Thanks. What you've shared resonates within me, as I have many of the same doubts and insecurities regarding my own identity.
    The words of my people's kukpi of a 100 years ago brings inspiration and energy to my spirit: "So long as what we consider justice is withheld from us, so long will dissatisfaction and unrest exist among us, and we will continue to struggle to better ourselves."
    Somehow, knowing they fought against much of what we still face today brings a sense of unity with them, even with the government and its agencies doing its best to destroy all our bonds with our ancestors. Everyday we live, we connect more and more with our predecessors, simply by our struggles and commitment to bettering our lives despite the will of those who wish us defeated, because our ancestors wanted the exact same for their selves.
    Again, thanks for your words. I'll link to your post through my blog.

  2. Will you be attending the UN Permanent Forum this year? As you must know the USA just signed on to the DRIP and of course the President included only language in the restrictions providing for only the 565 "federally recognized" tribes. We will be trying to bring people together at a place where "unrecognized and unrepresented" tribes to develop and present an intervention addressing the discrimination and requesting the UN to study this issue. It sounds like the "non-status" is pretty much the same vehicle used to continue the "discrimination against our cultures". I hope you will be there and that we might meet.

  3. Great article!

    People need to be educated about the realities of Canada's racist and assimilatory identity legislation – this is ridiculous!

    Pam: When Bill C-3 comes into force in the coming weeks will you apply to be registered as an Indian, or will you withold as a form of protest of an unjust and discriminatory law?

  4. Thank you Pam for putting into words the feelings of so many Indigenous people.

    I posted a link on my Facebook page and tweeted the link for both my Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends of what I believe to be a very clear and well thought out commentary on our struggles with identity.

    You inspire me in so many ways. Miigwech.

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