The long, complicated relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Royals

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When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge meet with Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia and the Yukon this week, it will be the latest interaction in a long, complicated relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Crown.

The Royal Family landed in Victoria on Saturday, the first stop on a tour to Vancouver, Haida Gwaii and Kelowna, B.C. They will also be stopping in Whitehorse and Carcross, Yukon.

Continuing a long tradition, Will, Kate and their children will meet with Indigenous peoples, including the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, who are excited to welcome their royal guests.

“We really view this visit as an opportunity to move closer to reconciliation with Canada … We hope this will gain a better understanding of one another,” said Heiltsuk chief councilor Marilyn Slett.

From nation-to-nation to symbolic relationship

For many, the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Royal Family began when the British arrived in what is now North America, and was first formalized with the issuing of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 — long seen as a ‘bill of rights’ for First Nations — and further cemented with treaties signed in the late 1800s.

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Close up of a medal given to First Nations leaders during signing of and commemoration of historic treaties with the British Crown. (CBC)

Those agreements were between two sovereign entities, Britain and First Nations, at least on paper. As such, royal visits have long been seen by First Nations leaders as an opportunity to strengthen and renew that relationship.

“As expressions or walking manifestations of the honour of the Crown, the Royal Family is expected to obtain or build relationships with people that are under treaty, including Indigenous peoples,” said Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, who met Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, when they visited the province in 2014.

Technically, those treaties are now between First Nations and Canada.

“It’s not that long ago that it was more than that,” said Ryan Eyford, who teaches history at the University of Winnipeg.

Responsibility for treaties signed between First Nations and the British Crown only really officially fell on Canada in 1982, Eyford said, when the country patriated its constitution.

Still, travel to many First Nation communities today and you’ll still see the British flag on buildings or carried into powwows during grand entry.

Royal influence

While the relationship might be symbolic, there’s no denying that royal visits can draw a lot of attention — and First Nations leaders are often quick to make use of that spotlight.

“The Royal Family still has a tremendous amount of influence whenever they step out into the public eye,” said Nepinak, who used his 2014 meeting with Prince Charles to discuss the environment, government relations and, of course, treaty rights.

Previous heads of the Assembly of First Nations — Canada’s largest political Indigenous organization — have also raised similar issues on royal visits, hoping the added attention can sway the federal government.

For the Heiltsuk Nation, the royal visit could bring more attention to their efforts to protect their territory, specifically a recent agreement that protects the surrounding Great Bear rainforest, which sees an area bigger than Vancouver Island now under complete protection from industrial logging.

“I understand they have great interest in the Great Bear land use order. Heiltsuk territory is the heart of the Great Bear rainforest and we have done a lot of work over the last few decades around land preservation,” said Slett.

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The long, complicated relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Royals

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