Some 35 years later, Palmater is still waiting. She still won’t stand when she hears the anthem.
Now, Palmater is very familiar with standing out. As a female, urban Indian who grew up off reserve, being different from other leaders has helped her transform into one of the most recognizable faces of Idle No More, the grassroots aboriginal protest sweeping the country.
“Right now, we’re in a movement, we’re in a revolution, and the majority of my efforts have to be toward that,” she says.
Palmater is also a lawyer, chair of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and a single mom to two “super-awesome” kids. Last year, she ran for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations — the top job in aboriginal politics. A Mi’kmaw who traces her roots to northern New Brunswick’s Eel River Bar First Nation, she’s outgoing and chatty.
She has become a front-page name only in the last year, but she’s been working behind the scenes since that day she refused to sing “O Canada.”
“Other people might have looked at us and thought that we were poor. But when you have a huge family and when you’re tied to your community and your culture and activism, we were really rich in that sense.”
“I’m not ashamed at all that I used to live on welfare, that was where I was as a single mom and I worked really hard to get out of that. Yeah, I lived in crappy housing, and I don’t any more. Those are just part of the struggles that, at the grassroots level, we all face.”
Palmater now has four degrees, including a doctorate. Studying Canadian law and working for the federal government — in what was then called the Department of Indian Affairs, and in Justice — helped her understand how to challenge them.
She stayed away from the spotlight until last spring, when a group of chiefs, elders and youth pushed her to run against much more established, mostly male politicians seeking to head the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which represents more than 600 Indian band chiefs.
She was reluctant at first, because her focus had always been “advocacy, not politics.” Yet she did remarkably well, finishing second in the voting among Canada’s chiefs. B.C.’s Shawn Atleo won re-election as national chief on the third ballot.
Palmater says she fears Ottawa is reviving the old “dangerous assimilation path,” with agendas that threaten both established treaty rights and future entitlements. She says Atleo and his supporters aren’t doing enough to stop it from happening, and she wants to see more power transferred to rank-and-file chiefs.
“There’s a problem with the AFN. Nobody wants to admit that problem because we all want to look like everything’s OK all the time. Canadian society and government says, ‘What’s wrong with you, you don’t all speak with one voice.’ Well, we never did anyway. We’re different nations . . . we have different interests.”
“It was never about that. I wanted a revolution. And now we have a revolution.”
The Idle No More protests have blocked bridges, highways and rail traffic across the country. The marchers in downtown streets are precisely the kind of grassroots movers and shakers the AFN has lost, she says.
At the end of November, she spoke at a teach-in organized by Edmonton activist Tanya Kappo. To promote that teach-in, Kappo created the #idlenomore hashtag on Twitter, which has been used hundreds of thousands of times since then to discuss, debate and plan Idle No More action.
Palmater has always preferred to be on the front lines. On Wednesday, she demonstrated at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor and Detroit.
Will these heady days of Idle No More inevitably fade as the novelty wears off? Are we witnessing a kind of Occupy movement, doomed to dwindle?
Palmater thinks the nascent movement will endure. It will grow bigger and become better, she promises.