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Dimitri Lascaris speaks with Indigenous lawyer, scholar and activist Pam Palmater shortly after the Ontario Provincial Police arrested Indigenous land defenders in Mohawk territory of Tyendinaga.

By Dimitri Lascaris

Published on TRNN, Feb 24, 2020

On February 24, 2020, shortly after the Ontario Provincial Police arrested Indigenous land defenders in Mohawk territory of Tyendinaga, I spoke to Indigenous lawyer, scholar and activist Pam Palmater.

In the interview, Pam argues that Justin Trudeau’s recent demand that the rail blockades be dismantled, which was swiftly followed by the OPP’s arrests, was an inappropriate and undue influence on law enforcement.

Pam also argues that Trudeau’s press conference on Friday of last week was replete with “propaganda” and that, whatever most Canadians may feel about the actions being taken in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, “human rights are not a popularity contest.”



Dimitri Lascaris: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for the Real News Network from Montreal, Canada. As the Real News reported last week, blockades of critical infrastructure have been erected across Canada in solidarity with land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory. Those land offenders have been peacefully resisting the construction of the fracked gas pipeline on their lands, situated in Northern British Columbia. For days, federal and provincial law-enforcement reacted to these solidarity blockades with relative restraint. But all of that changed on Friday, February 21st, when prime minister Justin Trudeau demanded that the blockades be dismantled. Here’s what the Prime Minister had to say on that day.

Justin Trudeau: Canadians have been patient. Our government has been patient, but it has been two weeks and the barricades need to come down now.

Dimitri Lascaris: This morning, February 24th, Ontario Provincial Police forcibly arrested indigenous land defenders in Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, which lies between Toronto and Montreal. Their indigenous land defenders had set up a rail blockade, which among other things had brought passenger rail traffic between Canada’s two largest cities to a standstill for weeks. Now here to discuss these latest developments with us as Pam Palmater. Pam is a Mi’kmaq lawyer and a member of the Eel River Bar First Nation. She currently holds the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. She’s also a frequent media commentator, author and former spokesperson and educator for the Idle No More Movement. Thank you so much for joining us again, Pam.

Pam Palmater: Thanks for covering this.

Dimitri Lascaris: Pam, I would like to start by getting your overall reaction to the developments of the past few days. Trudeau claimed in his press conference last Friday that his government had been patient. He claimed to have engaged in dialogue with indigenous land defenders. He claimed that his government had “come to the table” or that the hereditary chiefs at the Wet’suwet’en had failed to come to the table. What do you make of all of these claims by the prime minister?

Pam Palmater: Well, this was a lot of propaganda for the benefit of Canadians, knowing full well what was going to happen. The Wet’suwet’en people’s and the hereditary leaders and clan members have been asking for a nation-to-nation meeting with Canada, the Prime Minister and the BC Premier John Horgan since January. They have been asking for a real nation-to-nation discussion, but they had said they can’t have this discussion at gunpoint. So, the RCMP had to leave their territories so that they could engage in a way with, there’s no violence or intimidation. Canada refused to meet those demands. While the RCNP said that they were going to leave the territory, they never did. We saw the pictures and videos. You have a situation where the Prime Minister sends a very strong message to the police forces in this country. These blockades must come down, when in effect, governments are supposed to have no role in how different police agencies conduct their business.

Up until that point, like you said in your introduction, the OPP, the Ontario Provincial Police had shown some degree of restraint. So, that message comes out and it’s no shocker then that they move into arrest the Mohawks at Tyendinaga Mohawk territory. But at the same time the RCMP, were also rolling into Wet’suwet’en territory, and both of those are being reported at the same time. This is really, really inappropriate. It’s undue influence on the police, and it’s something that should never happened. You know what else? It sounds eerily familiar to what happened during the Ipperwash crisis, and if you’ll recall an OPP officer shot and killed an unarmed land defender. So, the OPP of course should never have done what they did, but it’s this undue influence by political leaders saying, “Get the Indians on the park. Remove the blockades. Enforce the rule of law.” But no rule of law for indigenous peoples.

Dimitri Lascaris: So yes, it seems rather a fortuitous that the police moved in so shortly after the Prime Minister declared that the blockades must come down. Hard to believe that the two events are unrelated. But, I want to talk to you about another aspect of the narrative, Pam, that is being promulgated by the mainstream media, and particularly the right-leaning politicians in this country. They, some of them have derided the notion that the hereditary chiefs speak of the Wet’suwet’en speak for the Wet’suwet’en people. Some have implied that there’s something vaguely anti-democratic about giving precedents to the will of hereditary decision-makers. I’ve even seen some people, including persons who would describe themselves as progressive, described the hereditary chiefs as royalty as though they’re not unlike European monarchies. Could you talk to us about why in indigenous culture, the voices of hereditary chiefs are authoritative and whether in fact, they bear any resemblance at all to traditional European monarchies?

Pam Palmater: Right. I don’t think they bear any resemblance to monarchies, first of all. But I mean that’s a really good comparison. If you’re going to complain about something, you need to look at your own systems. But for indigenous nations across the country, like the traditional indigenous nations, there’s all different kinds of traditional governing systems. Some have hereditary systems, others have systems of matriarchs. Others have others have systems where the leaders are identified at birth. There’s a whole bunch of different traditional systems. We’re not all the same, but in the hereditary system, it’s not like someone is just anointed and then they’re there for life. If they don’t do the will of the people, if they don’t follow their traditional laws, if they’re not looking out for the entire nation, they can be removed. In fact in the Wet’suwet’en nation, hereditary leaders have been removed for not acting accordingly.

There’s a whole bunch of culture and traditions and laws and rules and regulations around it. It’s not at all like the monarchy and it’s about traditional laws and customs. There’s something far more democratic about traditional laws that work on the basis of consensus and trying to get everybody on board, versus a 51% rule. I mean, that’s not even a real majority in any sense of the word. Then when you take into account, so few people vote, you’re really talking about a fraction, where traditional governments, really it’s about everyone getting a voice, everybody working towards consensus. If you can’t get 100% consensus that are working to accommodate concerns in a fair way, and that takes time. Democracy skips all that for convenience. I think these traditional forms of governance are far more effective and far more representative of the people. If you think about democracies in general, it’s supposed to be about governance by the people, for the people, and traditional governments do that far better than the electoral system.

Dimitri Lascaris: Now, on February 19th, two days before Trudeau’s tough guy, press conference on Friday, the polling firm, Ipsos Reid issued a poll showing that 61% of Canadians say they disagree that the protesters are conducting justified and legitimate protest while 39% take the opposite view, agreeing that the protests are both legitimate and justified. Ipsos Reid noted that in 2013, a poll of Canadians reacting to indigenous blockades taking place at that time showed that 31% thought the blockades were justified compared to 69% who didn’t. So, support appears to have risen significantly in the past seven years. Moreover, the corporate community hasn’t shied away from painting the blockades as the work of extremists, but when nearly 40% of the Canadians appear to agree with what they’re doing, can they fairly be characterized as extremists. What do you make these polling numbers overall?

Pam Palmater: Well, I mean polls are problematic because it tends to be those with some degree of affluence who are polls. So, people who have access to cell phones and computers. You think about all of the remote territory’s who won’t be accessed. You think of all of the people who are homeless or precariously-housed people in prison, all of the most impoverished, tend not to be the ones that are polled. It’s a small group of people that are constantly pulling themselves. So, I always take that with a grain of salt. Second of all, human rights are not … They’re not a popularity contest. If they were, women wouldn’t be in politics right now. If it had been left to waiting for a majority of men who agree that women should have rights, we would still be fighting it. And that’s what human rights are.

It’s meant to be a pushback against the majority who are oppressing and anti-human rights. It’s the same thing with native rights, except at a much, at a much higher level. And no, of course, the people involved in this are not extremists. I’m involved. I’m a lawyer. I have four university degrees. There are academics. There are lawyers. There are doctors. There are massive numbers of unions, teachers groups, standing on these protests. There’s Canadians. There’s kids that are doing this. I mean these, even some of the rail workers were saying that they were offering support. This is not about extremism. But these comments show something very clearly, that they are worried. It’s a lot easier when it’s just a few native people because it’s easier to vilify people and cut out their voices in the mainstream media. But when you’re talking about thousands and thousands of Canadians, protesting in Toronto, protesting at the Parliament today, doing rolling barricades, shutting down ports and legislatures, they’re quite worried about the fact that Canadians continue to grow in support of us and well they should.

This is about human rights. Native rights are human rights and they’ve been denied for far too long. This kind of extremist language is really just showing their fear around it.

Dimitri Lascaris: Finally, Pam, I’m going to ask you to prognosticate again, which is always a dicey proposition, but based on what you’ve seen from the public today, for example, there was a protest in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en in the nation’s Capitol. I’m sure there’ve been numerous others around the country. Where do you expect things to go from here? Are the blockades over or do you envision an escalation in the resistance?

Pam Palmater: I don’t think the solidarity actions are over at all. Because when you think about it, the Mohawks from Tyendinaga territory, they were doing their actions in solidarity, very peacefully, not even on the rail, but a fire on the side of the rail. So, not technically blocking anything and they get arrested. So, because theirs was done in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, now you have all of these solidarity actions in solidarity with the Mohawks from the Tyendinaga territory. There’s one thing that that is really, really important here. Of course, there’s going to be more solidarity actions. There’s going to be more actions all across the country and not just by indigenous peoples, by Canadians. I mean, there’s letters being issued by senators and MPs and the lawyers today saying, Oh, what Canada’s doing wrong. But I think it’s important for the viewers to note that United Nations has already called on Canada to stand down, stop violence against indigenous peoples, remove the police officers and their weapons and work towards consent on these projects and not move ahead with them without consent.

So, everything has changed as far as I’m concerned. Canada reached a tipping point. They promised reconciliation. They brought their law enforcement out with their weapons, and now we’re in a scenario where reconciliation looks dead. What gives me hope is that Canadians are trying to keep it alive, and I think if there’s going to be any success here, it’s going to be the push of Canadians on politicians who cannot get their minds out of the colonial mindset.

Dimitri Lascaris…: Well, we’ve been speaking again to indigenous lawyer, activist and scholar Pam Palmater about the most recent maneuvers of the Trudeau government and response to solidarity blockades. Thank you so much for joining us again today Pam.


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