Volume 52, Issue 1: Spring 2018

True test of reconciliation: respect the Indigenous right to say No

Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa.

Conflict is coming. There is no getting around that fact. Anyone who believes that reconciliation will be about blanket exercises, cultural awareness training, visiting a native exhibit at a museum or hanging native artwork in public office buildings doesn’t understand how we got here. Reconciliation between Canada and Indigenous peoples has never been about multiculturalism, diversity or inclusion. Reconciliation is not an affirmative-action program, nor is it about adding token Indigenous peoples to committees, advisory groups or board rooms. We cannot tokenize our way out of this mess that Canada created. Real reconciliation requires truth be exposed, justice be done to make amends and then Canada’s discriminatory laws, policies, practices and societal norms be reconciled with Indigenous rights, title, treaties, laws and jurisdiction. That process of truth, justice and reconciliation will be painful. It requires a radical change. Nothing less than the transfer of land, wealth and power to Indigenous peoples will set things right. The true test of reconciliation will be whether Canada respects the Indigenous right to say ‘no.’

Canadian courts have been issuing decisions about Aboriginal rights and title and treaty rights, sending the strong message to governments that they must obtain the consent of Indigenous peoples before taking actions or making decisions that will impact our lives. Governments have not listened. Canada’s failure to listen is one of the reasons why Indigenous peoples spent more than 25 years negotiating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which guarantees the right of Indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent. Article 19 of UNDRIP provides:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.


Consent is a legal concept which can be defined as the voluntary acquiescence of one person to the proposal of another. In general, it is the right to say yes or no to something and/or put conditions on an agreement. Consent must be free from misrepresentations, deceptions, fraud or duress. This is a very basic right, but one which has been denied to Indigenous peoples since contact. Take for example, the actions of Indian agents and police, who used food rations to extort sex from Indigenous women and girls. In the context of being forced to live on reserves, not being allowed to leave the reserve and being dependent on food rations, what real choice would a young girl have? Similarly, when police officers or judges detain Indigenous women and girls, drive them to secluded locations and force them to perform sexual acts — there is no real consent when the threat of lethal force or arrest on false charges is ever-present. This is especially so given our knowledge of the number of assaults and deaths of our people in police custody. There was no consent when they stole our children and put them into residential schools, nor was there any consent when priests, nuns and others raped those children. There was no consent when doctors forcibly sterilized Indigenous women and girls — sometimes without their knowledge.

Feb. 25, 2018: Justice for Colton and Tina rally, Edmonton. The woman at centre holding up sign is Colten Boushie’s cousin Jade Tootoosis. Photo by Paula E. Kirman/ RadicalCitizenMedia .com.

Today, the right of Indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent has become the central issue in Canada’s reconciliation agenda. Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise of implementing UNDRIP into law and respecting the right of Indigenous peoples to say no. When asked by APTN host Cheryl McKenzie whether no would mean no under his government, he responded “absolutely.” Another way of putting this is that Indigenous peoples could exercise their legal right to refuse to approve or authorize a project. This veto right stems from various sources, but primarily our inherent rights as Indigenous governments with our own laws and rules which govern our traditional territories. They may also come from specific Aboriginal rights, treaty rights and Aboriginal title. These rights are not only protected within our own Indigenous laws, but also section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act, 1982 and various international human rights laws, including UNDRIP. Yet, after Trudeau announced his latest idea to create a legislative framework to recognize Indigenous rights and avoid litigation, Justice Minister Raybould stated clearly that “consent doesn’t mean a veto” for Indigenous peoples.

So, we are now back where we started. Canada has not yet reconciled its laws, policies or political positions to the fact that Indigenous peoples have the right to say no to development projects on our lands. This means that conflict will continue to grow over mining, forestry, hydraulic fracking and pipelines on Indigenous lands. The true test of reconciliation will inevitably play out on the ground, like it did in Oka, Ipperwash, Gustafsen Lake, Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church) and Elsipogtog. Will Canada force the Kinder Morgan pipeline to go ahead against the will of British Columbia and First Nations? Will Canada isolate and exclude First Nations who do not subscribe to the extinguishment requirements of Canada’s land-claims process? What will happen to First Nations who stop provincial social workers and police officers from entering their reserves to steal more children into foster care? This will be the real test of our inherent right to say no.

Canada will only truly give effect to reconciliation when Indigenous peoples have the right to say no — no to discriminatory government laws and policies; no to federal and provincial control over our Nations; no to racism from society, industry and government; no to sexualized violence, abuse and trafficking; no to theft of our children into foster care and the imprisonment of our peoples; no to the ongoing theft of our lands and resources; and no to the contamination and destruction of our lands, waters, plants, animals, birds and fish. The right to say no is the core of any future relationship with the Canadian state and its citizens. It’s a basic right — one which is grounded in our sovereignty as individuals and Nations to decide for ourselves the life we wish to live. Canada has made it clear we have no right to say no, only an obligation to say yes. First Nations leaders and citizens should not wait to see how this plays out in court – they should assert and defend their right to say no now.

Pam Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick. She has been a practicing lawyer for 18 years and is currently an Associate Professor and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.