By Ken Coates and Melissa Mbarki, December 21, 2022
For good reasons, Indigenous peoples in Canada have mixed feelings about authority figures. While thousands turned out to welcome Pope Francis, many opposed his visits, challenged his words, and rejected his apology. Prime Minister Trudeau, likewise, generates very different reactions, from appreciation for increased funding to outright anger at the mistreatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould. The response to the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II reflected a similar pattern.
The Queen had visited Canada many times and routinely included sessions with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people and communities. She professed, routinely, both her admiration of Indigenous cultures and the importance of the long-standing treaty relationship with many First Nations in the country.
It was fitting, therefore, that her last message, sent only the day before her death, offered words of support to the people of James Smith Cree First Nations, who had just endured a horrible massacre: “I would like to extend my condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the attacks that occurred this past weekend in Saskatchewan. My thoughts and prayers are with those recovering from injuries, and grieving such horrific losses. I mourn with all Canadians at this tragic time.” The sense of loss was reciprocated, in some quarters the next day.
At the time of the Queen’s death and in the variety and many memorials and celebrations of life that followed, Indigenous peoples responded respectfully. Many Indigenous leaders offered words of condolences and praise for the monarch. Mary Simon, the Governor General of Canada, shared warm thoughts of recollection and appreciation. As she wrote, “When I was growing up, my grandmother revered The Queen, as did so many in the Arctic. She would tell us stories about Her Majesty, about her role and her commitment.”
That historic relationship extended to the Governor General’s first official meeting with the Queen: “Her Majesty’s warm welcome when we spent time with her earlier this year was a profound moment in our lives and a memory we will cherish forever.”
Professor Niigaan Sinclair offered a fine summary of the Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the Queen:
For Indigenous people, the queen represents treaty — represents our relationship to Canada. The queen is the primary thread in which Indigenous peoples have a relationship with this country, so we take it very seriously.
We also take very seriously that she’s a matriarch and she’s a grandmother and she’s a very strong woman. In the Indigenous community, that’s very important.
So the queen was certainly aware of the problems but was quite ambivalent — people have said that she’s very apolitical, and it doesn’t particularly leave a strong feeling of her reign … for Indigenous peoples, anyway.
Assembly of First Nations Chief RoseAnne Archibald gave careful thought to her decision to join the Canadian delegation to the Queen’s funeral. She decided to attend, commenting that “We have a treaty relationship with the crown. That treaty relationship and our formal relationship with the crown pre-dates Canada by 220 years – before Canada was even a country.” She concluded, “We belong here.” Her sentiments captured the national feeling among Indigenous peoples: respect, a desire to be present, but no outpouring of collective grief, or veneration for the long-time monarch.
For Chief Wilton Littlechild, the Queen’s death exposed an important generational divide: “I am wondering if with her death there will be an impact on our treaty relationships with the crown…The older people have a very different opinion about the crown’s relationship with treaty but the younger leadership doesn’t seem to have that same thought. In fact, some of them talk about a treaty with Canada – when in fact the Treaty was with Great Britain.”
Today’s younger generations are looking for sovereignty and independence from the Crown while building meaningful relationships within Canada. The current models of governance, which are paternalistic in nature, hinder development on reserves. Indigenous peoples have been dealing with poverty and a myriad of social issues for far too long.
In the past, the Royals visited Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan on many occasions. One of the earliest memories of the co-author of this essay was meeting Prince Charles (now King) at a pow wow. The monarchy attempted to maintain a relationship with Indigenous communities throughout the years.
We are hopeful that Indigenous peoples will move into a new era with the Crown. Reconcilation is doing better and not repeating the mistakes of our past. It’s recognizing that in order to move forward, we must change paternalistic policies and ideas around Indigenous self-governance.
Among the Indigenous population generally, the response was politely muted. Some reflected on her character and her contributions to the long-term stability of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Others wondered aloud about whether historic treaty payments would continue.
For many outspoken critics, the Queen’s death presented no cause for celebration. Her reign as Queen coincided with decades of hardship for Indigenous peoples, where they were forced to fight for recognition of their human, Indigenous and treaty rights. As the head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth symbolized the centralizing power of colonialism and all of the political, economic, territorial, cultural and religious dislocations associated with the British empire over the centuries.
As Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse observed: “How do we reconcile the harms of British colonial history and the treaty relationship? As the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth carried – as King Charles does now – all the baggage of British colonialism and its harm.” She continued, “For First Nations, there’s one important constant of what that relationship is, and it should be a peaceful treaty relationship between sovereign nations – that is the true spirit and intent of treaties.”
Given that Indigenous peoples, most appropriately, connected many of their contemporary challenges to the multi-generational legacy of colonial policies and practices, it was difficult to celebrate the life of the women who, for more than 70 years, was the figurehead for the most destructive institutions and force in their lives. There was, with a tiny number of exceptions, no effort to personalize the harm to Queen Elizabeth II, although numerous commentators observed that she did not do enough to set things right.
Canadians in general give Indigenous peoples and governments far too little credit for the long-term effort to honour the relationship with the Crown, as symbolized from 1952 to 2022, by Queen Elizabeth II. Through her reign, and continuing after her death, Indigenous leaders noted her passing, commented on her estimable qualities as a woman and leader, and maintained their respect for her position and for the treaties signed by the Crown.
In many ways, the measured and cautious approach of Indigenous peoples reflected that of Canadians as a whole, acknowledging Her Majesty’s many impressive qualities and her long-service while recognizing that the world that she represented, of strong ties between the Empire and the former colonies and their residents, had passed on. The Queen’s death, appropriately symbolic, represented a closing of the door on a long chapter in the history of the country and the gradual emergence of a new order, based on modern treaties, reinvigorated historic treaties, greater respect for Indigenous rights and the emergence of First Nations, Inuit and Métis as partners in Confederation.
Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Indigenous Affairs Program at MLI, and a Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan. Melissa Mbarki is a Policy Analyst and Outreach Coordinator for the Indigenous Affairs Program at MLI, and a member of the Treaty 4 nation in Saskatchewan.