Self-determination and governance are key to ensuring that Indigenous rights — and lives — are finally respected
The two-volume final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls that was released in June 2019 found, as a matter of fact and law, that Canada is guilty of both historic and ongoing genocide.
The National Inquiry found that “Canada’s colonial history provides ample evidence of the existence of a genocidal policy, a manifest pattern of similar conduct which reflects an intention to destroy Indigenous peoples.”
These colonial underpinnings, the report contends, is directly tied to current practices of violence against Inuit, Métis, and First Nations women, girls, and Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA) people.
“This genocide has been empowered by colonial structures, evidenced notably by the Indian Act, the Sixties scoop, residential schools and breaches of human and Indigenous rights, leading directly to the current increased rates of violence death and suicide in Indigenous populations,” the report concludes as part of its call for immediate action.
The scale of the crisis is staggering. “Thousands of Indigenous women and girls are abused, exploited, disappeared and murdered in Canada every year,” explains Pamela Palmater, a professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson, which is supported by the university as part of its commitment to Indigenous education, diversity and social justice.
2,380Number of family members, survivors of violence, experts and Knowledge Keepers who participated in the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
“My work combines academic research and publishing with public education and advocacy to help empower Indigenous Nations, Canadians and our international allies to push all levels of government to ensure that the human rights of all people in this country are protected.”
Exposing injustices on ‘Turtle Island’
Palmater, a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick, has been engaged in Indigenous issues for most of her life. She has been a practising lawyer for over two decades and, as an author, activist and expert in her field, she frequently hosts or appears as a guest or panelist on radio, television, podcasts and social media to illuminate and discuss matters relating to Indigenous governance and empowerment.
In addition to teaching and public outreach, Palmater’s expertise is often called upon for expert interventions at parliamentary and senate committees, international human rights treaty bodies and especially within First Nation governments and grassroots Indigenous organizations “to expose injustices, resist ongoing genocidal policies and encourage resurgence through Indigenous identities, cultures, languages, traditions, economies, laws and governing practices,” as she describes her efforts.
“My focus is mostly on Turtle Island — what others know as Canada and the United States. First Nations and Native American governments are historically connected through kinship, trade, military alliances and treaties, but, our Indigenous struggle is also similar to what is experienced in other colonial countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Samoa, for example.”
Ryerson has been willing to support Indigenous faculty engaged in social justice work that challenges the status quo, even when it causes controversy or debate. The university is on the leading edge of real reconciliation, and its support of my research is a sign of more good that can follow.Pamela Palmater, Professor and Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson
The path to a better future
Education has a crucial role to play in ending what the National Inquiry’s final report described as “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses” that are the root cause of disproportionately high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls and 2SLGBTQQIA in Canada.
In fact, specific actions for educators were included in the report’s 231 individual Calls for Justice.
Those calls reflect work that Palmater is already doing at Ryerson. Her efforts to promote greater public awareness and intentional learning among Canadians about historical and continuing injustices that result in violence against Indigenous people, and her advocacy for creating education opportunities for Indigenous people by Indigenous people — not just to recognize conditions that can lead to violence, but also around understanding and respecting traditional forms of governance as a path toward greater agency in their lives — are important steps toward a better and more equitable future.
“Ryerson has always had an open mind about how to combine academic education with practical societal benefits,” she says. “It has also been willing to support Indigenous faculty engaged in social justice work that challenges the status quo, even when it causes controversy or debate. The university is on the leading edge of real reconciliation, and its support of my research is a sign of more good that can follow.”
Palmater adds that Canadians are also important strategic partners in what needs to happen.
“Canadians have the numbers, the wealth, the political influence and access to tools that could be used in partnership to demand change from governments — in fact, to force change from governments. Canadians benefit from the historic and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples and thus have a role to play in advocating and supporting Indigenous self-determination and a fair share of lands, resources and governing power.”
In the end, she says, that is what we promised each other in our treaties: mutual respect, benefit and protection.