Mi’kmaq academic, legal rights advocate receive Order of Canada

A Mi’kmaq scholar and advocate for Indigenous legal rights were among the new recipients of the Order of Canada at a ceremony at Rideau Hall Friday.

It was also Governor General Mary Simon’s first Order of Canada ceremony and she reflected on the important role the recipients have in improving relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“You’re also working toward reconciliation,” she said. “Which is not one project or act, nor does it have an end date. It’s including, understanding and respect.”

Marie Battiste is a highly respected professor and researcher who has done significant work in the recovery and renewal of Indigenous languages and decolonization of the education system.

She is also the mother of Nova Scotia Liberal MP Jaime Battiste and said receiving the award from Simon has special significance.

“To come in and to have this and to have her excellency Mary Simon give this award to me and even whisper to me that we have met before because we have both worked together on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People…,” Battiste said referring to Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.

James O’Reilly is a lawyer who has been fighting on behalf of Indigenous rights for most of his lengthy legal career.

He said as Indigenous rights have continued to evolve in the court system, it has created a whole new series of conflicts.

“When I look back on this, sometimes I say, there have been many, many defeats in the Canadian courts of the rights of Aboriginal peoples but there have been some magnificent victories and that’s what propelled the continuation of the confrontation not only politically but in the courts,” O’Reilly said.

Battiste said she sees awards like the Order of Canada as one way of renewing the treaty relationship.

“Aboriginal and treaty rights come through and with the British Empire and therefore to have someone to be recognized in this is really to renew our relationships. I think that’s what the treaty is about is our relationships with the Crown and how they are constantly renewed.”

At the same time, O’Reilly said he did have some trepidation in accepting the award.

“It’s ironical here because I hesitated since I’ve been fighting the federal government all my life, accepting the Order of Canada is a little strange but I said, well, maybe after one of the grand chiefs of the Crees he said, ‘Well, maybe the enemy is recognizing that we put up a good fight.’”

A total of 23 recipients took part in the Order of Canada ceremony.

It was the first in-person ceremony since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than two years ago.

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