Porcupine Podcast Episode 3: Northern Reality and Reconciliation Part 2, with Tony Penikett.
Merrell-Ann and Michael continue their discussion about First Nations and government to government reconciliation. Their guest is former Premier of the Yukon and author of Hunting the Northern Character, Tony Penikett. Lightly edited for reading.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:02): This is Porcupine. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare.
Michael Miltenberger (00:05): And I’m Michael Miltenberger and we’re the hosts of the Porcupine Podcast.
Merrell-Ann Phare (00:09): Okay. So there’s this old joke that goes how do two porcupines hug?
Michael Miltenberger (00:14): 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. Welcome back to Porcupine Podcast. This is episode two, part two with Tony Penikett.
Tony’s Experience With Reconciliation
Michael Miltenberger (00:44): Reconciliation, easy to say, hard to do. A lot of people have no idea what it means for most people or people have their own unique ideas. Do you have a clear definition in your mind of what reconciliation is? And what would be the one thing that we have to put for it at the top of our list? If we’re going to make it really happen?
Tony Penikett (01:06): It is a complicated – it is a complicated project. It means that each of us on each side of the reconciliation debate have to surrender something to the other. And I am enormously pleased when I’m in Nunavut and I see non-Indigenous members of the legislature debating in Inuktitut.
But if you think about whether that’s conceivable in Quebec, Ottawa, Alberta or British Columbia, it is just not there. There is a new kind of society being created in the North. And it is created, I would argue, across the Arctic. With the possible exception of Russia, where there is some genuinely hybrid institutions being created, which actually suit the local geography, and are the product of some very hard and sometimes very painful debates that have gone on over the last 30, 40 years. That to me is a very large and ongoing reconciliation project
Governing From A Distance
Michael Miltenberger (02:11): In the Northwest Territories, we had two parallel tracks going on. And complimentary parallel tracks. The resolution of land claim agreements, and starting out the question of rights as at the same time Northerners as a territory pushed hard with Ottawa for devolution. Take into the North decision-making from Ottawa.
And as we had the debate, my position to the people always was, we need devolution. It’ll get rid of thousands of kilometers of red tape that currently tie our hands. [Red tape] where there’s bureaucrats making decisions that don’t even live here and that we would make our own decisions. We would sort out our own problems and we would live with the results. Is that approach consistent with your experience?
The governments are physically and psychologically far away from the areas they’re trying to govern.
Tony Penikett (03:02): One of the things about the government, the Arctic, which is very true is this. The national capitals and the federal States live at huge physical and psychological distance from the areas they’re trying to govern. I mean, Copenhagen’s a hell of a long way from Nuuk.
Ottawa’s a long way, even with modern communication systems from Iqaluit or Yellowknife, or Whitehorse but it’s even further away from Sahtu or Dehcho or, you know, Tlicho, um, or, you know, [inaudible] and Alaskans feel exactly the same way.
And by the way, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Scandinavia, the last few. So do people in Northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland.
Tony Penikett (03:37): So the idea that we have an Arctic Council, which includes representatives from Indigenous Northerners – that’s good. But includes no representative, no voice, even for the half of the Canadian population that are settlers.
And the assumption is that somebody sitting in an air conditioned cubicle in Ottawa can articulate the needs and the values and the priorities and the policies of Northerners better than people who were elected or chosen by the people in the North to do that job is just ludicrous.
The Whitehorse Indian Band & The Power of Language
Known Today As Kwanlin Dün First Nation
Merrell-Ann Phare (04:11): In your book you talk about, I think it’s back in 1977; the Whitehorse that was then called Whitehorse Indian Band, and the Whitehorse city council. And I think the word you used was they existed in the same geographic space. But they had no idea what to say to each other to fill these awkward silences. I think, I don’t know if you, would you agree, do you think those awkward silences still exist? And what advice would you give to people if they’re sitting at those tables now?
Tony Penikett (04:36): Oh, from time to time. And they exist even in places like BC, where I’ve been at. I was for a while (more than a decade ago) chief negotiator. Chief negotiator for the province wide table with the First Nation Summit on behalf of the provincial government as a deputy minister.
And there were lots of times when we had like really awkward conversations. The people on both sides didn’t even understand the words that other people were using. There’s a kind of bureaucratic language that professional public servants use. A language which people with lots of experience. as chiefs and negotiators learn over time. People who are new to those processes are completely befuddled by it.
Merrell-Ann Phare (05:15): That’s my experience as well. I’ve been at tables where we’re all speaking English. But there’s an English that bureaucrats or officials use that has to be deciphered. And in some cases, decoded and it’s, it can create an awkward silence.
What does it mean to tell a story with a moral center?What should others take away from that in terms reconciliation?
One of the places in your book, you speak about the deep knowledge of Indigenous communities. You speak about their traditional territories and their hunting grounds, et cetera. And you used a phrase I found very poetic. You talk about them telling stories with a moral center.
What does it mean to tell a story with a moral center? And what should others take away from that in terms reconciliation? Is that something that we need to learn how to do? Or what, what are you trying to share with us about that?
Tony Penikett (06:05): I want to say two things about this. One person who I’ve learned a lot from in the last few years is John Burrows. I worked with him and listened to him give talks. And John Burrows has argued that Indigenous law – and that was not Aboriginal laws practiced by Tom Burgeon and thousands of others since, but Indigenous law – the law of the pre-colonial nations – still exists. And it should continue to coexist with First Nation laws, territory laws, federal laws. All of that makes sense to me.
But he’s also talked about how a lot of these laws come from close observation by Indigenous people over thousands of years of interrelationships between animal species – in between humans and species, in between the species and the land that create a worldview, which is very different from the Western one. And that out of those interrelationships and the behaviors of various animals and their impact on the land. And the land’s impact on them.
It comes a certain kind of moral code or moral ideas.
Tony Penikett (07:07): And it comes a certain kind of moral code or moral ideas. So to use one example that John Burrows uses, which is I think a good one, you take the [inaudible] self government agreement. You have, codafide very clearly in that agreement where federal responsibilities, provincial responsibilities, [inaudible] government responsibilities, but preexisting and continuing, Burrows argues, are [inaudible] traditional laws about how you should handle a fish when it’s called, how you should avoid over fishing, how you should respect fishing grounds that you share with other nations.
And those very ancient laws should continue to exist. They should continue to operate, in addition to the very layered federal provincial First Nation regimes, which are defined in the land claim. And that makes a lot of sense to me. So Carcross/Tagish, for example, which is a Tagish-Tlingit group, when they write laws begin with a legend or a story.
At the end of that story in bold print is extracted the moral code, which is put in black ink. And that may be a single sentence. But that becomes the hinge now for the legal drafting, the black letter legal drafting that follows in modern legal drafting so that the ancient moral principle or code is connected to the modern drafting in a way. That seems to me, to make a lot of sense.
How Does Reconciliation Relate to Questions of Biracial Identity?
Merrell-Ann Phare (08:35): So you have children that are biracial. They’re First Nation and their mother was First Nation. You are non First Nation, non-Indigenous, and so they are of mixed heritage. And so I’m just wondering about how reconciliation relates to these questions of identity? And which side are you on? Which group are you a member of? And are there dividing lines that can be found or should they even be found? Um, what is, what does reconciliation mean about, uh, about that?
Tony Penikett (09:12): I say this in the book. We’ve got to move out of the federal boxes of status/non-status Indian, non-status Indian/Métis, uh, Inuit. One of the things about land claims and self government agreements, seems to me, is to make more important.
So the Indian Act no longer applies to Yukon First Nations that have self government grants. Uh, it’s just, just not relevant. It doesn’t, it doesn’t operate. What does operate, and this I’ve noticed this among young university educated and First Nation people, is that they have been in a process of discovery about their own lives.
They’re now proud of their tribal identity.
Of course, they’re now proud of their tribal identity as a way that they were not taught to me when they were young in residential school or even into the sixties. I would argue they’re now proud of being, in the case of my kids, Tanana. But they also are interested in the fact that they may have British or Welsh or French or Finnish or Norwegian or Swedish ancestry. `
Tony Penikett (10:10): And they actually are quite comfortable with that idea of multiple identities. And, you know, when my kids, my daughters, particularly, I noticed this when they’re at potlatches… They just instantly submerge themselves into their tribal roles, which are assigned by history, their clan relationships and responsibilities without any kind of anxiety.
But my daughters were raised in the Yukon. They are quite comfortable going off and working in Europe and working in France and, you know, doing whatever which is, which is great. One of my daughters is also now become heavily involved in running cultural camps for her First Nation, which means learning language, learning songs, learning how to do traditional practices and actually passing this on to kids who are three, four, five, six, seven years of age, in summer camps.
Let’s Use the Word Indigenous.
Tony Penikett (10:55):One of the things I have noticed, for example, the last few weddings I’ve been in the Yukon, which has been an education for me – almost everybody in my extended family on the let’s use the word Indigenous for this on the Indigenous side, have a Finnish, Swedish or Norwegian or British grandfather or great grandfather. And as the third, the second generation after land claims or the first generation after with university degrees have become more and more curious about their ancestry.
They’ve started to go and visit relatives in Sweden or Finland or Norway. And as a consequence, people from those countries who had relatives in those countries have started to turn up to weddings in the Yukon, in their traditional costume. These blonde blue eyed people in traditional costumes and doing their dances.
The fact of the matter is though that I think, Michael mentioned this earlier, there are thousands of people in the crowd across the North, tens of thousands of people who are not one or the other, or people like my children who are both and who don’t want to be pigeonholed as one of the other. My, my kids are deeply attached to their mother’s tribal identity and, and participate in the cultural things.
They recognize it’s part of both their identities.
Tony Penikett (12:07): But they’re also not ashamed of my ancestry. They don’t regard my father’s work as a doctor, my mother’s work as a nurse and my work politically is a bad thing that we were bad people, because we were involved in the early days of the reconciliation project, if you like. And that was actually a good thing. They recognize it’s part of both their identities.
The fact that there are so many mixed-race families, I mean, not just, you know, non-Indigenous/Indigenous, I know lots of people in Inuvik, for example, who were half Inuvialuit and half Gwichʼin. They don’t think anything of it, but they do make choices in thir life about whether to be politically active in the Gwichʼin community or the Inuvialuit community. That seems to me, part of what modern Canadian life ought to be about.
The Perception of Privilege
Michael Miltenberger (12:51): When it comes to reconciliation in our family situations, the lines tend to blur, and it’s a much more positive process, but for the nation at large reconciliation seems to be a much more polarizing, difficult issue.
Tony Penikett (13:08): As we moved into the late seventies and land claims negotiations and so forth and right up to the present time. Now we now have a government that I suspect many non-Native folks in the North, but also on the West, where I’ve been, tend to thin now the government is actually privileging Indigenous people, or, you know, First Nations people over the rest of us. I suspect in the next election, you’ll have a big Tory backlash about don’t don’t, doesn’t Trudeau care about white people, blah, blah, blah. You know, there’ll be white guys who drive trucks and so forth.
What’s a settler?And does a settler tie you to being a colonizer?
Merrell-Ann Phare (13:37): So Tony what’s the, what’s a settler?And does a settler tie you to being a colonizer?
Tony Penikett (13:45): Well, you may, you may be a descendant of one, but I’m not bothered by the term. I don’t use it very much, except when I’m talking to Southern academic audiences, because that’s the languages they use, but that’s not denied that typically British colonial influences in the way we’re governed the way we write laws and so forth are not likely to be eradicated in the near future. I am actually a fan. Do you know, do either of, you know, Ronald Wright, the anthropologist?
Merrell-Ann Phare (14:12): Yes.
Tony Penikett (14:14): I mean, I think his thesis that the Indigenous nations in the Americas, not just North America, but in America that have survived have been those that have followed a path of syncretism. In other words, they’ve borrowed from the dominant society what is useful to them, highways, cell phones, you know, cars, whatever, in order to protect what was essential to them in terms of their own Indigenous identity, language, Indigenous law, culture, so forth.
We allowed the Western myth to create that Indigenous governments were by definition, small, weak, and incompetent.
And he argues, I think successfully, that if you, particularly, if you look at Latin America, those are the nations that have survived. I mean, the Inca have a renaissance going on right now, the Aztec are still beaten after 500 years. I mean, there are many people who talk about that as being a phenomenon. In some sense that the Aztec, who at one point governed the largest city in the world, which Tenochtitlan was in, in 1515 with 3 million people in its policy was the largest Indigenous government at the time in the Americas.
And yet having destroyed it, we then allowed the Western myth to create that Indigenous governments were by definition, small, weak, and incompetent. So I think a settler is, is a useful term to define people who come from somewhere else. I think it is a term that auto outlived its usefulness in the North, in the North, we should be recognizing that people should be who they say they are.
There are Métis nationalists in Canada who talk about… You’re only Métis if you’re actually of Cree and French Canadian ancestry from the Red River Valley. Well, that’s nonsense. The Métis, the Gwichʼin and Scottish Métis and the Mackenzie Valley, don’t accept that definition at all. Nor do they deny that they’re Métis. And so we should be grafting our own labels for our own identities as we go on.
The Healing Process: Grief, Anger, and Repressed Rage Over People’s Own Histories
Michael Miltenberger (16:02): Let me ask you a question. The Question is a little more on the personal side for many people, as we talk about reconciliation. So with a lot of folks, especially older folks, the issue of the grief, anger, repressed rage over their own histories, be it residential schools, stories of theirs, I’ve heard personally, of really being cut off, the way folks were treated.
My mother who, God rest her soul, is gone. But she was 84 when she died. She, her time, which she never was able to really make peace with…. How do you deal with that when you have a good chunk of the Canadian population that has very little or no understanding of that history? They lacked that understanding and the recognition that the Indigenous people have been marginalized and suppressed for literally centuries. And now we’re trying to set the record, right? And we can’t get past those, those histories and the gap of knowledge and understanding?
Tony Penikett (17:15): Part of the healing process is, has got to be stories and the telling of stories and the fact that we now have young Indigenous writers and so forth telling and retelling the story and processes like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are, are terribly important.
The Northern Stories of Reconciliation
Merrell-Ann Phare (17:27): And so is that part of also what you’re trying to do with your book? Are you trying to tell some of the, the Northern stories to help with that reconciliation?
Tony Penikett (17:38): Well, it, it started off with something which I suspect a lot of people would regard as very trivial. With this enormous, I don’t put it any stronger, this annoyance, I felt for decades listening to federal politicians, particularly talk about, oh, Canada’s Northern Character, our Arctic Identity and so forth.
And I’ve always felt a very strong temptation to sort of grab them by the collar and say, what the hell do you mean by that? Because almost never do they accept in the most superficial way, talk about what they mean about, you know, lconic Northern Men out there in the wilderness fighting grizzly bears and whatever, or, you know, highly competent, um, women from the North out there, snowshoeing and trapping or whatever.
“I’m trying to answer this question.”
And I sort of have a sense that it led me to a point you’re saying, well, maybe I should try these for myself. I’m trying to answer this question.
Merrell-Ann Phare (18:38): I routinely face, because I’ve worked in the North for a period of time, not very long, but long enough to learn some fascinating stuff about what people doing up there that is very different than what’s happening in the South.
And what I hear in the South a lot is, Oh, that’s really awesome, but that’s the North. You can’t do that down here. And, and it’s, it’s kind of a flip on the Northern characters. Like there’s something different about those folks or that set up that is not translatable to the South, even though they’ve tackled many of the hard questions and it’s a work in progress, we get that. Were you wanting the book to try to tell the South something about what can, what can be done in reconciliation, or do you think there’s some truth to that?
That there’s a Northern reality that is not translatable in terms of reconciliation or governance reform or dealing with the past?
Is there a Northern reality that is not translatable in terms of reconciliation or governance reform or dealing with the past?
Tony Penikett (19:33): That Northerners are creating a new and different society based on a bunch of different values, which are not yet realized in the South. So when the Canadian government is talking about reconciliation, I wish they would look at what’s happened in the North over the last 50 years. I wish they would understand that reconciliation as between communities, is actually quite an advanced project relative to the national one of talking about, which I still think this is a problem, federal government reconciling itself with First Nations and the nation state.
I actually think it’s not entirely a bad thing that we have been, in the North, given the political space to create this new reality. Had the federal government been much more active and interventionists and dictatorial in the way it went about things, and they were at times, but on a generally… I don’t think we would have been allowed to do the things that have been done in the Northwest Territories and none of it in the Yukon, Alaska or Greenland or, or, or Finnmark County in, in Norway where they’ve now borrowed Canadian co-management.
The local municipal politicians get to make all land use decisions and resource development decisions.
So the [inaudible] and the local municipal politicians make, get to make all land use decisions and resource development decisions. I mean, these, this is stuff which is pretty interesting and pretty exciting. Look, can, can the Northern experience be replicated in Vancouver? No, it can’t. But I do think as Saskatchewan becomes… It is headed to demographically in the century to become a majority Aboriginal or First Nation province. They have a lot to learn from the North. When I worked there for a while, I was astonished that, for example, they were very proud to tell me that they had a co-management group and renewable resources.
And I was curious, and then, so I went and had a look at it. It was a committee that had one First Nation Chief on it, and they thought that was good management. They were deluding themselves. At my first meeting as a deputy minister, I wasn’t a deputy. I got invited to this deputy’s committee cause I was supposed to be writing them a self government mandate. And this deputy minister said to me, well, Tony, what do you, what do you think? What do you, what do you think of our self government programs?
I remember looking at him in utter astonishment saying, I think you can have self-government or you can have programs. There was only one guy in the room, who got, who got what I was saying. And it was the deputy minister of justice who was a very smart guy. And so we’ve got a long way to go.
We have hard work ahead of us on governance reform in this country.
Merrell-Ann Phare (21:58): We have hard work ahead of us on governance reform in this country. And I think people don’t want to change the systems cause it’s either they don’t know how to, or they’re terrified or it just feels too big. So I want to ask a question about your statement, where you said the feds have to, there’s hard work of reconciling within the, the Indigenous roles within the nation state. And you said in your book, I think you quoted an American author, and you said, jurisdiction is the issue that matters.
And so my question to you is paint a picture for the people that are going to listen to this podcast. How does being a nation in Canada, an Indigenous nation, fit with having jurisdiction? And then how does it fit with a seat at the table of Confederation? Like being a government, being part of the governance of this country, what is the, what does that look like? What is that future? What what’s the future we should be trying to create? And what are the conversations we need to have on that?
Tony Penikett (23:01): Let’s just go through some of the things we know. I mean, first minister’s conferences, Nick [inaudible] And I were around for the battles of trying to get First Nations, I mean the territorial governments, even a seat at the table, not with a vote, but with a voice, right?
“They tend to think, well, we’ve got a committee, we’ll put some First Nation people on it.”
And then as a result of the Aboriginal round and Meech and Charlottetown, Bob Ran, a number of others, facilitated the sort of guaranteed role of, of national political Aboriginal political organizations at the table. If you were really going to get serious about this question of jurisdiction, which I think is poorly understood in many provinces, it’s also a problem in the feds. When they want to talk about reconciliation, they tend to think… “Well, we’ve got a committee, we’ll put some First Nation people on it.” Well, that’s not what it’s about
Michael Miltenberger (23:52): In the Northwest Territories. We’ve figured out a way to write public laws like the Wildlife Act on a full codrafting basis. What I mean by that is there are Indigenous government hands on the pen, as well as the territorial government hand on the pen.
We also figured out a way to sign memorandums of understanding between Indigenous governments and the territorial government. It laid out how they will interact together as governments, as cabinets with the formal policies and approaches. When you look at what we managed to do in the North, the practical application through experience and lots of echo, lots of attempts… Would that help inform the debate of what is possible in Canada, as we have this broader discussion on reconciliation?
What is possible in Canada as we have this broader discussion on reconciliation?
Tony Penikett (24:45): I do. I have you ever read Tom Courchene’s, famous essay about First Nation province? Tom Courchene said, look. If you look hard at what First Nations want in this country… And then now I’m moving South, now, they want… Well a roughly quasi-provincial powers over land resources, forests, fish, et cetera.
You go through the normal 92, Section 92 Powers. He argued that the easiest way to achieve that would be to create a provincial First Nation legislature representing all the First Nations in Canada. Each would have a seat in this kind of parliamen. And they would make laws for themselves on a whole range of issues. And I thought, I mean, it’s never going to happen that way. But as a way of intellectually explaining to non-Indigenous people what First Nations want, I thought it was brilliant.
In BC, the government is seriously talking about trying to do reconciliation on a broad scale. But I would be surprised if every member of the legislature understands that reconciliation, no matter how good their intentions are, actually involves honoring and recognizing jurisdiction. And when I was asked recently by someone in BC, well, what do you mean by jurisdiction? And I said, lawmaking power. Until First Nations in Southern Canada get land they need to have a viable economy and the lawmaking power over those lands, I would argue we, we don’t, reconciliation to still be incomplete.
Michael Miltenberger (26:25): Thank you, Tony. We really appreciate you taking the time. It has been very, very interesting.
Merrell-Ann Phare (26:35): The Porcupine Podcast is produced by myself, Merrell-Ann Phare and Michael Miltenberger. We’d also like to thank our co-producer and audio technician, Hannah Gehman, and our writer, Deborah Bowers,. Thanks to you for listening to Porcupine Podcast. We hope you return and please feel free to rate and subscribe. Bye for now.