Monday, December 6, 2010

Patricia Monture

It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of the Mohawk legal scholar and activist Patricia Monture.  Patricia died last month after several years battling breast cancer.  She was 52 years old.  My thoughts are with her family and those that were close to her.  They must bear the loss of a mother, sister, aunt, and friend.  As this obituary in the Globe and Mail makes clear, the Indigenous world has also lost a champion. Ka hinga te tōtara o te wao nui a Tāne.

I never met Patricia in person but I have been greatly inspired by her work and, in particular, her commitment to achieving justice for her people.  One of the aspects of her work that I most admire is her ability and determination to articulate a perspective of law that overtly acknowledges, and is built upon, her personal experiences and cultural grounding as a Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) woman.  Such a perspective challenges us all to think critically about the way in which Indigenous communities and individuals experience law.  It demands that we consider the values that are embedded in law and the interests that law advances, as well as the values and interests it opposes.  As another Indigenous legal scholar has noted, her approach “lays bare the myth of objectivity wielded by . . . judges, those who work within systems built around such Western constructs as ‘rights’ and the ‘public/private divide’”.[1] Her book Journeying Forward: Dreaming First Nations’ Independence helped me to see ways in which Indigenous peoples’ accounts of law can be at once deeply personal and rigorously analytical. 

I also found Patricia’s tireless work for transformative change a real inspiration. Her experiences with the law suggested to her that reactively fighting oppression resulted in pouring energy into issues that were not constructed or framed by Indigenous people.  “Change” she wrote “will come not from institutions but from the people. . . Being self-determining is simply about the way you choose to live your life every day”.[2]  And she backed up her words with action.  She determined that Canadian law, as the key instrument of her people’s oppression, could not also be the source of their self-determination.  Though she saw her role as a teacher as central to the contribution she could make, she stepped away from the law school environment so as not to be complicit in the perpetuation of a system that oppressed Indigenous people.  Instead she chose to use her skills and her knowledge about law to encourage discussion about the ways in which Indigenous peoples can change the reality in which we live.  For me, her example provides a constant challenge to think critically, not just about law, but about my own actions and whether or not they are contributing to transformative change.   She was an example of a true warrior, in the sense that she herself described the term:

Warrior, in my mind, is not a man’s word.  It is not a fighting word.  It is not a war word.  Given what I have been told about many Indian languages, that you cannot use “he” or “she” in the same way that you do in the english language, I suspect that the word warrior is not a gender specific one at all.  Warrior is a ‘knowing your place in your community’, ‘caring to speak your truth’, ‘being able to share your gift’, ‘being proud of who you are’ word.  Warrior in the way I intend it, is not merely a resistance word.  The way I have come to understand the warrior is someone who is beyond resisting.  Survivors resist.  resistance is one of the many skills that a warrior might use.  It is not their only way.  Warriors also have a vision.  They dream for their people’s future.[3]

[1] Gordon Christie "Indigenous Legal Theory" in B J Richardson, S Imai, and C K McNeil (eds) Indigenous Peoples and the Law (Hart, Oxford, 2009) 195 at 228.
[2] Patricia Monture-Angus Journeying Forward (Fernwood, Black Point, Nova Scotia, 1999) 159.
[3] Patricia Monture-Angus "Standing Against Canadian Law" (1998) 2 YB NZ Juris. 21 (1998) 7 at 21.