Reflections on Land Back

By: Cheryl Maloney


Cheryl Maloney is a Mi’kmaq activist and practitioner of Indigenous law. She is the former President of the Nova Scotia Native Women’s Association where she led the organization’s participation in the Missing and Murder Indigenous Women Inquiry. She has also worked as a Professor of Political Science at Cape Breton University where she taught social justice and Mi’kmaq studies. Cheryl has been involved in a number of front-line struggles for Mi’kmaq self-determination, including the Alton Gas resistance and the Sipe’kne’katik self-governing fishery. We interviewed her for Rooted to learn about her life’s work asserting Indigenous laws and sovereignty. Rather than a standard question-answer format, we approach this interview following traditional storytelling protocols where the speaker is given the opportunity to tell their truth without interruption.

My father was the former chief of our community of Sipe’kne’katik, Chief Reg Maloney, and he goes by Sagamow. My mother was from the community of Millbrook and is a Residential School survivor. I am a direct descendant of treaty signatory Jean Baptiste Cope.

When I think about my ancestry and the ancestors that walk with me, about who my father is, who my mother is, and who I am, I think about how we don’t talk about these stories in mainstream law journals. My dad was Chief. He was fighting the Marshall case in the 1990s when I was a young woman. I remember prior to the Marshall decision, we were fishing in St. Margaret’s Bay, about 800 traps a day. My dad said we had the Treaty; we can do more than fish for food, social, and ceremonial (what the courts recognized at that time) – we can trade. Hunting and fishing for food, social, ceremonial is the colonial legal definition that was given.

We are now taking our rightful places – we own Clearwater for God’s sakes! A couple years ago, our fishermen were all fishing under the darkness of night. I wrote one of the best letters of my life the week before we launched the self-governing fishery. I wrote a letter to all the Ministers, the Premier, the Prime Minister, RCMP and DFO – it was what I call the rule of law letter. I told them they need to uphold the rule of law. I told them that we were going to be launching our fishery and we expect them to protect us. That letter went to the United Nations and is going to be used in courts. Everything that happened afterwards – the violence, the RCMP and DFO, and the failure to uphold the rule of law would be so horrible, so horrendous, and enough that we could go to the United Nations and say, “Look, we asked for your help. We asked for your protection.”

I think we’re in a good spot because even if we do nothing, we’re not going back. Now we have Mi’kmaq all over the territory asserting their rights – not just Shubenacadie band members. It’s going to be a heck of a lot harder to slip this under the rug again, and that’s what the government tries to do. What we did was open up rights-based assertions grounded in Indigenous laws and challenged Canadian laws. We got nothing to lose. We can lose our boats fighting, or we can lose our boats from docking them up at the water and not fishing.

This work is about the connection to your ancestors and your ancestral lands, and how we navigate through laws, through Canadian laws and Indigenous laws. When I was working on the Alton Gas project, fighting against this company that wanted to dump salt brine into our river, I kept telling everybody, “the ancestors are haunting me to do this work.” I would wake up with messages in the middle of the night and I just didn’t know what I was going to do… and then, all of a sudden, there I am, shutting down the highway and doing legal advocacy. My activism isn’t just protesting. It’s rooted in Indigenous and Canadian law. You need Indigenous law, and you need Canadian law. You need ceremony, spirituality allies, and all these elements together to make a perfect storm of a social movement…

You often hear elders say the ancestors speak through us. I really felt that it was the ancestors that that wanted us to do that work. And if the ancestors are involved, you can win. When you’re doing something, right, and your ancestors are on your side, the laws are on your side – Indigenous laws, Canadian laws are on our side. You can’t beat us. We have to hold these projects off until the law is able to take hold. Once the law took hold, that’s when I left Alton and went home. That issue went to the courts and there is accountability now. They tried to get around Aboriginal consultation by saying “we took phone calls.”

That’s some of the greatest work I’ve done in my life – protecting the river right where my ancestors lived before the reserves, and where my own direct descendants, young boys, learn to hunt and fish and trap. It’s like we’re connected to the land and the territory, more so than a reservation. Our connection to our ancestors, to our land and our territory is so real. I live my life that way. My dad, a strong community Chief, did the ancestors’ work. His life work was my work. The work I do, he did. And the work before him was done by my ancestors. One of our ancestors even went to petition Queen Victoria over the 1867 British North America Act!

Land Back is about our responsibilities to our lands, our territories, and our ancestors. These relations are rooted and protected in Canadian law and Aboriginal law and the Constitution. Canada has to recognize and honour Indigenous laws and Treaties. Responsibility is a relationship. I think I’ve changed more laws in my life by asserting Indigenous laws and challenging the Canadian state to defend their laws. That is work that I was spiritually put on this earth to do. I’ll never forget my elder – a medicine man, a blind man but he could see – he said, “You have to learn Indigenous law. You’re an Indigenous lawyer. You need Mi’kmaq laws.” I had my marching orders. My life work is challenging Canadian law by promoting Indigenous law, Indigenous rights, and Indigenous nationhood. As advocates, we have to assert our laws and wait for everyone to catch up to us, and it takes a while for Canadian law to catch up. Canada’s job is to resist, ours is to move forward. This is the nature of the treaty relationship.

By the time I become an elder, there’s going to be all these amazing, like-minded, spiritually driven youth that listen to their ancestors and that listen to Indigenous laws. Society’s slow to change, but the uprising of indigenous youth has been prophesized. All the prophecies talk about how we will go through all this pain and suffering, and then one day the seventh generation will rise up and will take our rightful place. Thousands and thousands of young people across the country started learning about how Canadian laws are oppressing our people. And they didn’t need to go to years of ceremony – they felt the ceremony when they did an action. They picked up the feather, they lit the fires, they laid the tobacco, they offered their prayers, they looked for guidance, and they did food offerings. That spiritual rebirth. They just did it and they knew what they were doing. For me to see that uprising come and go in my life – we are all the prophecies are coming through. The ancestors are guiding us. We are all doing what we’re supposed to do.