Porcupine Podcast Episode 0: Meet the Hosts Merrell-Ann Phare and Michael Miltenberger
In this introductory episode, Porcupine writer Deborah Bowers turns the tables on hosts Merrell-Ann Phare and Michael Miltenberger. They talk about the importance of reconciliation, and why they’re doing this podcast. Deborah asks about their stories, backgrounds, and personal experience with reconciliation in Canada. (Lightly edited for clarity and readability.)
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:04): This is Porcupine. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare.
Michael Miltenberger (00:06): And I’m Michael Miltenberger and we’re the hosts of the Porcupine Podcast.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:10): Okay. So there’s this old joke that goes how do two porcupines hug?
Michael Miltenberger (00:15): Carefully.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:15): And such is the story of reconciliation, at least so far. In this podcast series, we’re exploring reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. We’re looking at its funny, educational, touching, and difficult aspects, and also its prickly parts. Hi everyone.
Episode 0: The Ground Base
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:36): This is episode zero and welcome. This is the episode where Michael and I, with the assistance of our writer, Deborah Bowers, explain why we’re doing this podcast, why we care about this issue, and what the podcast is about.
Deborah Bowers (00:51): Hi, Marilyn and hi, Michael. Thank you very much for inviting me to join episode zero of Porcupine.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:58): So Deborah, maybe you could introduce yourself a little bit first and then like, let’s get going.
Meet Deborah Bowers
Deborah Bowers (01:03): I have known Merrell-Ann since, I guess it’s the late nineties. I was the owner of a consulting firm in marketing communications. The Center for Indigenous Environmental Resources became a client. My partner and I learned so much about Indigenous issues, about environmental and water issues, and just came to Merrell-Ann. We greatly respect her and her team and their talents and passion for the issues they were managing.
I also couldn’t help but notice the culture in the office and the diversity of employees, the diversity in opinions… Just a lot of Indigenous knowledge that was contained within the space. Quite physically, even in terms of the sharing circle. And then that coincided with my own background. I’m Métis but like many people who are Métis, I didn’t grow up in the culture. I didn’t come to gain that knowledge about my ancestry until I was an adult. So I’ve been on a journey of discovery and reconciliation of sorts, throughout my entire adult life in terms of learning about my own background. So reconciliation is very meaningful to me personally.
Merrell-Ann Phare (02:18): We are thrilled to be working with you. And so how about if we turn the tables right now. How about, if you start asking us some questions?
Why the Name Porcupine?
So we wanted to kind of illustrate that issue and show examples – real examples of people actually overcoming the barriers and actually doing the great big porcupine hug.
Deborah Bowers (02:25): I think the first, most logical question, at least in my mind, is why Porcupine? How does porcupine relate to reconciliation?
Michael Miltenberger (02:35): Like porcupines, it’s very prickly, a tough subject. And when you get a lot of porcupines together, it takes a very careful approach to have anything constructive happen.
Merrell-Ann Phare (02:46): But I, the thing I think what I would add to it is that they’re trying to hug, right? That’s what the joke is. They’re trying to. We do actually want to try to get to know each other and heal from the past that we have. But it’s just really hard to do it. So we wanted to kind of illustrate that issue and show examples – real examples of people actually overcoming the barriers and actually doing the great big porcupine hug.
Deborah Bowers (03:12): The image of two porcupines hugging. That’s a, that is a pretty careful type of image. It’s uh, have you actually seen it in action?
Merrell-Ann Phare (03:24): No. Just in our logo, that’s it. No, I have no idea if they actually do that. I’m sure they must. I mean, there’s porcupine babies around, they must do something.
Meet Merrell-Ann Phare.
Deborah Bowers (03:32): Okay. I suppose so. So in terms of your perspectives, and now you have, you came to Porcupine, I’m wondering, perhaps we could start with you, Merrell-Ann. Can you tell me just a little bit about your background? Your interests in reconciliation? Why you as a non-Indigenous Canadian woman, why do you care about reconciliation?
Merrell-Ann Phare (03:54): I’ve worked in a First Nation organization for most of my life. (I’ve spent) 25 years in an organization that I helped found with ten First Nation chiefs. (The organization) is called the Center for Indigenous Environmental Resources. And I’ve had so much experience, or opportunity rather, to meet Indigenous people, work with them and learn from them. It’s just at that real ground level, you see all these amazing things happen.
And then at the political level, it’s just seems like fraught with difficulty. When you think of the political headlines about reconciliation, it’s really dark and gloomy. And so I’ve just been lucky to be close to a lot of these issues. I want to kind of share some of the things I’ve learned and have other people meet some of the people that I’ve met that’s and the amazing work they’re doing.
As an non-Indigenous person, it’s also my country and my future and the future of people I love and including Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. And it just, it matters to me that we try to address this terrible past. And I just think it’s everybody’s responsibility, regardless of who you are.
Meet Michael Miltenberger.
Deborah Bowers (05:05): Also wondering about Michael. And if you could tell us a little bit about your background and interests, Michael, in terms of reconciliation, and especially as it relates to you being a Métis Canadian?
Michael Miltenberger (05:18): When my dad married my mother, he left the priesthood to do that. And my mother was a young lady from Lac Le Biche, small, indigenous community in Northern Alberta. We spent the first 11 years of my life, the way I remember it, basically being on the run from the reach of the government and the church, who were very unhappy at what happened with my parents.
And my whole life has been the battle between the family, and against government, against the church. And everywhere I’ve been in my life that same theme is there – even in the Northwest Territories, residential schools, small communities – always the need to fight for doing the right thing against the big institutions of government and the church.
The Sashay: How Merrell-Ann and Michael Met.
Deborah Bowers (06:03): That’s fascinating in terms of how you grew up and tells us a lot about the unique perspective that you bring to the topic. As I was listening, what I really wanted to ask on that topic before we get into the theme, was a little bit about how the two of you became friends. How did you meet?
Michael Miltenberger (06:22): I was a minister of environment, way back in 2005 or there abouts. And we, we were both in Ottawa we’re at a supper. My first memory of Merrell-Ann was, of course, we were having supper with a bunch of water folks, and Merrell-Ann came sashaying in, fashionably late and sat down at the end of the table where I was sitting. And we started talking with everybody that was there and we got, and she had her book that she’d written with her.
Long story short, Merrell-Ann and I started talking about her book, her work with water, and I was, as minister, we were pushing for a bilateral water agreement to be negotiated with Alberta and BC – two very big, tough jurisdictions. And my concern was that if we just use the regular government guys – all right, good guys in their own way, I guess – but if we use government negotiators, we’d never do anything really good and innovative. When I saw and met Merrell-Ann, and read her book, the start of our working relationship was that we got in touch over a few months. I asked her if she would take on the role as a negotiator, given her background in water.
We Developed Some Very Interesting Processes.
And from there, we developed some very interesting processes. We, we worked in very, very tough circumstances, very, very complex circumstances. And we achieved our goals, but only by working very, very closely together with her and the negotiating team. She was the point of the spear for the government of the Northwest Territories against some very big, tough well-funded jurisdictions: Alberta… BC… Saskatchewan.
And from there, when I left politics, we’d carried on because we had so very many common interests related to water and the environment. She’s, as you, as you well know, she’s a very impressive person. And we stayed working because we continue to do good work. We started writing about podcast issues like reconciliation. Then the technology is such that now, it’s even better to be able to talk about it together.
Deborah Bowers (08:39): Well, if I could interject Merrell-Ann. I want to hear your version of the story. But if I could interject, I’ve known, I’ve known you since the late nineties and I’ve never seen you sashay.
Teamwork for a Better Future
Merrell-Ann Phare (08:50): Anyway, I don’t think I sashayed, but yes, that’s my recollection. It’s exactly as Michael explained it. I think the only piece I would add to it is that I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for my entire life. I’m a lawyer in private practice. But I’ve also worked in an Indigenous organization, nonprofit organization, and I’ve never worked for a non-Indigenous government before. Just felt that working so closely with Indigenous folks, you develop a healthy caution when it comes to working too closely. And chose to spend my time working in Indigenous organizations, obviously.
But then when I met Michael and saw the amazing work that he was doing as a politician, leading his department, a couple of departments at the time, actually, and being a significant leader in the NWT, I kind of, I guess, made an exception. He just had total understanding, as I saw it, in how we need to work in partnership, collaborating, treating Indigenous folks, government to government, nation to nation, just, just trying to figure it out.
I was amazed at how far advanced the Northwest Territories was in dealing with some of these issues that in the South – we just here in Southern Canada seem to feel are impossible to resolve. Oh, I was just inspired and hopeful after watching what people did there. And (I) was thrilled to be given an opportunity to work with them. And I’ve learned so much that it just hasn’t stopped. So we just, as Michael said, work well together and continue to try to explore these issues.
Breaking Down the Meaning of Reconciliation
The Personal Level: Real People Doing Real Things
Deborah Bowers (10:32): Well, I’m really glad you teamed up to talk about reconciliation. It’s really helpful to know actually that you met at a dinner, and it all started with water and water rights are certainly a part of the reconciliation issue in Canada. And I’m sure you’ll be exploring that in your podcast.
So now I’d like to get back to the central theme of the podcast in terms of reconciliation, as your theme. I’m wondering if you can help the average listener, understand reconciliation. Whether they are from Canada, whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, or perhaps they’re a new Canadian from another part of the world… How would you best explain reconciliation in simple terms?
Michael Miltenberger (11:18): For me, it would be, the simplest way is to try to tell people that this is getting to know people you don’t know and understand where they are in their life.
When Indigenous people, there’s a huge chasm between Canadians and Indigenous Canadians. And we found in our work in Manitoba, for example, that you’ve had mayors and chiefs that have been living side by side for 151 years and never talked to each other and you get them into a room where there’s a chance to have a conversation. And that’s exactly what happens. The conversation happens. And a lot of the misunderstanding and fear fall away.
And it’s an issue that people shouldn’t be afraid of. It’s something, reconciliation is something we do in our lives on an ongoing basis with all the people that are significant to us, that’s the only way relationships survive. And in this case, we’re trying to build a relationship.
Reconciliation is about changing the way decisions are made at the highest government levels.
Merrell-Ann Phare (12:18): And so Michael’s response is kind of at a very personal level. And I think I’ll add to that by just saying, I tend to look at it also as a, at a high level government kind of systems kind of approach, which is the structures that we have that govern decisions in Canada need to change. Reconciliation is about changing the way decisions are made at the highest government levels.
How do those decisions, how are they made that are so that they’re reflective of what Indigenous and all other Canadians want? What our government departments look like? What do Indigenous governments look like? How does, how do we create a system where things work together? And so that’s at the highest level, I think.
Michael Miltenberger (13:10): But you can’t move the high level unless you deal with the fundamental underlying issues in the relationship issues. Those entrenched institutions were there because there was a very personal perception and way back in the 1800s of what Indigenous people were like and how they had to be treated: wards of the state.
You can’t change the institution until you change the mentality, the attitude, and that’s the hard part.
And there’s been the whole many, many generations of bureaucrats that have grown up with that mentality drilled into them. So you gotta get past that. You can’t change the institution until you change the mentality, the attitude, and that’s the hard part. And that’s where the fear comes.
And you, you know, what, as well as I, Merrell-Ann, when we think we met with the chiefs and mayors, it came right down to basic fear of the unknown. Once you get them in a room and you talk, and they realized that their neighbors, their friends, you know, cheer for the same hockey teams, they, they got the same aspirations, the fear falls away, and you get a commitment “let’s change how we do business,” but you will never get them to change how you do business till they know who they’re dealing with.
Merrell-Ann Phare (14:26): And that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this podcast is we’re trying to show real people doing real things.
Nobody Should Be Treated Like That
Deborah Bowers (14:34): Now, in terms of like, that’s an pretty incredible overview and perspectives. So I’d like to dive in a little bit further on the concept of reconciliation and, and just get a little more personal. And Michael, perhaps we can start with you on that. Wondered why do you personally care about reconciliation?
Michael Miltenberger (14:58): Well, because fundamentally as a, at one point told Merrell-Ann, it’s not fair. It’s uh, it’s not right. And which, as Canadians we shouldn’t have that difference – that strong dichotomy and level of where some people are looked down upon and you have to have to fight to get treated fairly. And it never has made sense to me.
Why is it so hard to talk about treating Indigenous people like Canadians when it comes to rights and their ability? Their freedoms? They’re the only people -Indigenous people – that have had legislation that puts them on reserves that took away their land titles. That took away their rights that took away their ability to do economy. And it’s not, it’s not fair. It’s been driven over the years by two main institutions: the government and the church.
And so the issue is sticking up for the people that always had somebody’s foot, some government foot, institutional foot on their neck. For me, it’s always been, you fight about institutions. But, you know, that the personal issue is it’s not right, and nobody should be treated like that.
Facing Your Fears and Having the Conversation
Deborah Bowers (16:19): And Marilyn, how about you, uh, on a personal level? Why is reconciliation important?
Merrell-Ann Phare (16:25): Well, I think that I’ve got a couple of layers on this. One is sort of intellectually, there are issues that are, as Michael pointed, the Indian Act, et cetera. I remember being in law school and Meech Lake Accord happened when I was in second year of law school. And I watched Elijah Harper stand up in the Manitoba Legislature and say no with an eagle feather in his hand.
And I had just learned about the constitution and how one level of government actually has jurisdiction over a people, a race of people, which just was shocking to me as a city girl, non-Indigenous, it just as a lawyer intellectually, I just couldn’t believe that I lived in a country that had something like that.
Geez, if I’m nervous about it, don’t know how to approach it.Merrell-Ann Phare
In my heart I just am so afraid of, I guess I’m having this conversation. I’m worried about how do non-Indigenous people weigh in on this conversation? How can we meaningfully ask questions of each other? How can we try to have this dialogue that Michael talks about? And I think to myself, geez, if I’m nervous about it, don’t know how to approach it. And I’ve been working with Indigenous people for 25 years, how would other people who haven’t had that opportunity? How afraid must they be or worried must they be?
And so I just feel like I want to take the risk to try to ask the questions. Have the conversation. Share the people I’ve met with to try to make some progress in a small way. I don’t know. Probably at another level, I just have authority issues. And I really don’t like it when people are not all treated fairly. And so that is kind of at another level.
Is Reconciliation a buzz word?
Deborah Bowers (18:18): I think the concept of challenging authority is absolutely going to resonate with a lot of your listeners. Um, and also just because both you and Merrell-Ann have explained it in such an authentic way, we can all relate to the, to the concept of it’s simply not fair. And that is an excellent reason to pursue something you’re passionate about.
So I’m wondering now about the term reconciliation itself. It seems to have come to the forefront of public awareness in Canada in 2008 in conjunction with the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. But at this point all these years later, do you think reconciliation has become a buzzword? Is it a call to action? Where do you think it stands right now in the collective consciousness?
Reconciliation is a 360 degree door.
Michael Miltenberger (19:13): Well, let me take a stab at this. This is the issue of reconciliation. Is it a buzzword? I don’t think so. Not yet. I mean, some people could be dismissive, can characterize it as that. Since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought to a head and into the open, a lot of things that had been pushed and fought for, individually against huge bureaucracies, it’s become clear and open.
And it’s something though where the harsh light of day is on it. And it means, reconciliation means we have to reconcile many things, personal relationships. We have to reconcile our constitution with the reality of what actually exists in terms of the institutions that are still there from the remanence of the old days that still drive a lot of the thinking. It’s a work it’s not finished yet. I think people have to just be prepared to have that discussion.
And we’ve covered more ground in the last 20 years than we have in the previous 130. So to me, there’s a, this is a very live issue. And if people – it’s like saying, are you tired of talking about love? Or are you tired of talking about peace? Are you tired of talking about goodwill? No, you’re not because those are things that we will all go to our grave pursuing.
I just wanted to make the observation about the reconciliation as well. It tends to be perceived as a door that only swings. It’s like a bat-wing door. Indigenous/non-Indigenous. But in reality, it’s a 360 degree: Everybody is involved in reconciliation.
Why You Should Care About Reconciliation
Merrell-Ann Phare (21:03): And I would pipe in with a reconciliation between all humans and the earth, because I think that’s the ultimate foundational reconciliation relationship that we’re going to need to deal with right now, actually,
Deborah Bowers (21:17): Why should Canadians of all cultures care about reconciliation?
Michael Miltenberger (21:24): You can care for reconciliation for a whole number of reasons. You can care for it because it means something to you personally in your family. And there’s where I live in, and probably throughout most Canada. We have, we have families where in my family, we got Métis, we got First Nation, we got French, we got German, we got all sorts of folks.
You can care for it that way. You can care for it at a higher level like Merrell-Ann’s talking about where it’s the right thing to do as governments. As institutions. As a country.
And you can talk about it economically, that we got to reconcile because my goodness, the country’s tied up in knots. Everybody’s in court, we’re fighting over resource development. We can come to an agreement over how to protect the environment. What do we do about climate change? A lot of that’s tied to reconciliation, reconciliation with Indigenous people.
We have some increasingly polarized positions on political spectrums that drive that as well. So it’s important for a whole host of reasons. And you ask, there’s as many people as reasons why we should have reconciliation.
Government vs The People: Big Structural Change
Deborah Bowers (22:36): And Merrell-Ann related to Michael’s answer, if we could expand a bit as well. I think we’ve all heard in separate conversations with colleagues, with family, with coworkers, with people you just meet in the airport and start talking to… When it comes to reconciliation, a lot of people seem to think that it’s the government’s job… That (reconciliation is) something that the government should handle. It’s their task and something they need to take care of. What do you have to say to those Canadians that are just not making that leap yet about how to approach reconciliation?
Merrell-Ann Phare (23:13): Yeah, well, I mean, I think that as, as you’ve heard Michael and I both say reconciliation happens at a very personal level. It’s about getting to know people, Indigenous people. And I think the role of government is to enable, to create the conditions to make that happen.
Local People Solve Problems On The Ground
Merrell-Ann Phare (23:25): But government is not good at solving problems on the ground. Local people solve problems on the ground. And the history of Indigenous people in Canada is, is a federal government, far away, many thousands of miles away doing a not great job, and in some cases, an absolutely terrible, awful job of managing, Indigenous people in communities because they have the jurisdiction to do that under the constitution.
So the role of government now is to create, for example, the programs, the financial resources, reduce the barriers, change, the legal structures, change the policies, sort of step out of the way, just to create the conditions for people to work together to build individual relationships and to do the hard work of reconciliation. And then literally change all the things that need to be changed in order for those relationships to persist.
The Government is a Collection of Individuals.
Michael Miltenberger (24:40): So when we have that discussion, of course, we have to keep in mind, we tend to talk about government as a disembodied entity that has a life all unto itself. But governments just the structural and legal shell that’s populated and driven by individuals that are, are put there.
They’re either hired as bureaucrats or they’re elected as politicians, my case four year term, 1,460 days where you go there from where you’re from the constituency, this small place or country that you may be from to represent people. And you’re elevated into a position where you have to try to do the right thing.
And the only thing that animates governments to do the right thing are those people that come in with that drive and political will to change that inanimate structure of government that is only given life by the people that are there, sent there by their constituents to make it work. So that’s why the personal stuff really drives the informal stuff, drives the formal operation of government.
Porcupine Podcast: Real People, Real Stories, Authentic Perspectives on Reconciliation
Deborah Bowers (25:51): So on that personal level this is sort of ground zero for the Porcupine Podcast. I just want to sort of get a sense of who I’m going to listen to, who I’m going to learn from.
Merrell-Ann Phare (26:05): So we’re interested in sharing with the audience access to a whole number of people, um, that are doing real things in reconciliation. And that have been thinking about it from kids to politicians…
Michael Miltenberger (26:19): The former premier in the Yukon…
Merrell-Ann Phare (26:23): Artists, scientists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We’ve got a whole slate of people lined up. And I think listeners will find it really interesting. Some of the work and thinking these people have been doing.
Michael Miltenberger (26:36): All who, in their own way, are involved in reconciliation – pushing and involved in it in their life. And so it’ll give you a great number of perspectives on an issue that some people think is relatively straightforward, but there’s as many perspectives on reconciliation as there are people.
The Podcast is About Having Just Conversations for Fair Solutions.
Deborah Bowers (27:00): What do you have to say to listeners who are just wondering at this point, if they’re feeling overwhelmed, what do you think, in terms of some general thoughts, on how Canadians can move forward on reconciliation? What, what do you think needs to happen next?
Merrell-Ann Phare (27:15): So I’ll get real practical. I think first on the list should be start talking to Indigenous people about this issue and start reading things that Indigenous people have written. It comes down to personal action and knowledge, and that’s a great place to start.
Michael Miltenberger (27:35): Well, it would seem to me that this thing has been building now for a long time. And the more you talk about it and where you think about it, and the more you come not to fear it, the better the discussions should be and the more opportunities there are to move forward together. Because everybody I know wants to get on with life in Canada. They want to be able to have things sorted out.
So they’re not in a state of apprehension and stress over the, these things that have been plaguing us for 153 years. We found that out in Manitoba with the mayors and the chiefs, it’s a big issue. They have all very, very similar goals and aspirations that we just have to get past the initial fear and misunderstanding and started building that opportunity, as Merell-Ann said.
Merrell-Ann Phare (28:34): So thank you very much to Deborah Bowers for her good nature and support in helping us create this introductory episode for you. The Porcupine Podcast is produced by Merrell-Ann Phare and Michael Miltenberger. We’d also like to thank our assistant producer and audio technician, Hannah Gehman, and writer, Debra Bowers. Thanks to you for listening to Porcupine Podcast. We hope you return and please feel free to rate and subscribe. Bye for now.