The key role of The Queen and her representatives in Reconciliation

Nathan Tidridge

The Walter Gordon Symposium is an annual conference co-hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College. In the lead up to the 2016 Walter Gordon Symposium, students, speakers, faculty, and community members are invited to share their reflections on the theme of reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous Peoples in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its calls to action. The symposium will take place on March 22 and March 23, 2016.

This country finds itself tasked with repairing its most ancient relationships. It is in this era of Reconciliation that the Crown in Canada has the potential to reclaim one of its foundational roles in our society. Perhaps the most “Canadian” aspect of the Crown in these lands is its ability to act as a conduit between communities, as well as a gatherer of community.

Canadians need to be educated around the role of the Sovereign as Treaty partner with Indigenous Peoples – a role that is immediately relevant to contemporary society, as well as  acts as the very bones of our modern democracy. It should not come as a surprise that during a profoundly important Royal Tour by the Queen in 1973, a Canadian official, likely Jean Chretien, was recorded saying to the British High Commissioner that “the monarchy, and the fact that, on occasions, The Queen can talk directly to the native peoples has helped to prevent in Canada anything like a direct confrontation similar to ‘Wounded Knee.'”

As mentioned in Caleb Holden’s post “Why a New Royal Proclamation Needs a New Treaty of Niagara,” the original Royal Proclamation was issued in the name of King George III following the defeat of New France in 1763. It is often held up as the “Indian Magna Carta” by the Government of Canada because, near the end of the document, and after much negotiating, the proclamation recognized “Indian Nations,” and placed them under the protection of the Crown.

The King’s representative at the time was Irishman Sir William Johnson. After being reminded of the Indigenous presence on the land by Pontiac, his allies, and other Nations, Johnson recognized that a partnership would need to be kindled on Indigenous terms, and employing Indigenous diplomacy, in order for the Royal Proclamation to be accepted. The 1764 Treaty of Niagara was the result.

The very existence of the Covenant Chain Wampum (presented by Sir William Johnson to the assembled nations near the banks of the Niagara River at the end of the great council) tells us that the settler population once honoured Indigenous perspectives and diplomacy because it was created by the King’s Representative and presented on His Majesty’s behalf. This wampum is not an Indigenous artifact, rather it is a vice-regal one – a diplomatic device that was employed by lieutenant governors of Upper Canada throughout the early 19th century.

Grand Chief Gord Peters, Professor Rick Hill, The Hon. David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Professor Alan Corbiere and Chief Ava Hill stand in the Johnson Room of Fort Niagara's "French Castle" holding the Covenant Chain Wampum (1764) during the 250th commemoration feast of the Treaty of Niagara hosted by the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Nations on August 1st, 2014.
Grand Chief Gord Peters, Professor Rick Hill, The Hon. David C. Onley, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Professor Alan Corbiere and Chief Ava Hill stand in the Johnson Room of Fort Niagara’s “French Castle” holding the Covenant Chain Wampum (1764) during the 250th commemoration feast of the Treaty of Niagara hosted by the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Nations on August 1st, 2014.

When looked at holistically, the Royal Proclamation and the Treaty of Niagara can properly be seen as one of the many “Magna Cartas” that continue to live and grow in these lands. The gathering at Niagara extended the great Silver Covenant Chain of Friendship forged with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy from the east coast into the interior of this continent, bringing with it a familial relationship with the Sovereign. This relationship was supposed to inform future treaties, including the numbered treaties and modern treaties forged with the Crown. It also reinforced that the Treaty relationship is, still,  a personal one with the Queen regardless of the government, or political developments, of the day.

However, there are problems.

While the Treaty of Niagara was being negotiated, the power of King George III was already being curtailed by the emergence of what English political writer Walter Bagehot called the Dignified Crown (the King) and the Efficient Crown (powers now exercised by elected ministers, including the prime minister).

This reality was never articulated in the Treaties.

In fact, since the establishment of our first treaty relationships many non-Indigenous peoples have repeatedly reimagined the Crown in these lands without consulting, or seeking the consent of, the Nations that are bound to it. Treaty is a familial relationship, and one of the primary members of the family has been dramatically altered without consultation with, or consent of, the others.

Today, Her Majesty and members of the Royal Family still understand, and continue to honour, their unique relationships with Indigenous Peoples. We need to educate Canadians about these important relationships. There are numerous examples happening right now that include the remarkable work of the Princes Charities Canada and the tireless efforts by other members of the Royal Family and their representatives – I think specifically of the Earl and Countess of Wessex.

Canadians need also to be reminded that the official representatives of the Queen provide them with a medium with which they can reconnect with their treaty partners. There are many examples that highlight the vice-regal representatives of the Queen affirming, or even rekindling relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

However, much more can be done. As outlined in my book The Queen at the Council Fire, there are specific things that could be enacted by Her Majesty’s Canadian Representatives to further Reconciliation that would not violate the convention of responsible government.

First Nations are independent entities that must be treated with a level of respect that only the Dignified Crown can offer (I would cite the work being done in our sister realm across the Pacific, New Zealand, whose office of the Governor General has been transformed to reflect its unique position as the bridge between Maori and non-Indigenous Peoples). Discussions around integrating Indigenous protocols and relationships within the day-to-day lives of the vice-regal offices should become a focus of Her Majesty’s Canadian Representatives.

A unique feature of our constitutional monarchy is that the provincial Crowns allow Her Majesty’s relationships to adapt to meet the needs of specific regions and Nations – the lieutenant governors prevent a cookie cutter solution from being imposed, allowing relationships to reflect the diverse Nations that are bound with the Dignified Crown across the continent. During a powerful address at a conference exploring the Crown in Canada held in Victoria a few months ago, the Hon. Steven Point, the province’s first Indigenous lieutenant governor stood in the British Columbian Legislature where he introduced us to the idea of “wordless symbolism.” His Honour’s description of the British Columbian Black Rod, which includes jade carved by Tsimshian elder Clifford Bolton (Soo–Natz), deserves being repeated:

As long as this staff survives and this house stands, Aboriginal People are coming into this house with the Sovereign.

While such relationships are being developed across Canada, in some cases they have been piecemeal, or dependent on the interest of vice-regal office-holders.

Protocols and relationships developed by vice-regal offices, in consultation and with the consent of their Indigenous partners, need to transcend individual governors general or lieutenant governors and instead become embedded in the very heart our constitutional monarchy. As Alan Corbiere, noted Anishinabee professor, commented in a lecture at the University of Toronto:

“What ends up happening is people that end up succeeding in the role of . . . lieutenant governor . . . don’t get apprised of the responsibilities. They have a total lack of knowledge of treaties that have been passed down as well as the diplomatic nature of the discourse when they met in council” 

For many vice-regal offices across the country, the incoming official representative directs what themes will be supported and ceremonies will be attended. In many ways, the Dignified Crown resets itself with every appointment. This continual resetting contrasts sharply with the radically different approach to time and history taken by Indigenous Peoples. The lack of institutional memory in regards to Indigenous relationships must be remedied.

Maintaining the historic and personal relationships between Her Majesty and Indigenous Peoples must be become one of the official and publicized duties of the representatives of the Crown in Canada, and should be seen as a key and contemporary responsibility as important as their duty to ensure there is always a prime minister or premier in place.

Government Houses and/or offices should become regular gathering places – “safe spaces” – for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples to come together in community that observe protocols such as receiving petitions, gift-giving, sacred fires, and feasts and other ceremonies specific to the particular Nation gathered at that time. As Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell explained in an interview with the National Post last week:

When [Indigenous Peoples] think of governance they think of the treaties that were signed and those treaties were signed with the Crown so it’s part of our ongoing work to convene people, to bring people together in this safe space that transcends politics. To bring people together to learn — aboriginals and non-aboriginal — and to learn about each other.

I see the grounds of Rideau Hall, as well as the various provincial Government Houses (and offices) as the perfect places to create such safe and permanent spaces. A model could be the Governor’s Garden at the residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) from 1870-1882. It was in this garden, in the heart of Turtle Island, that Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris (who negotiated Treaties Three, Four, Five and Six) meet frequently with Indigenous delegations. Recently restored, the garden’s important history as a gathering place has yet to be memorialized. 

The Governor's Garden at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park, Winnipeg. A model for a meeting place between the Queen's representative and Indigenous Treaty partners.
The Governor’s Garden at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park, Winnipeg. A model for a meeting place between the Queen’s representative and Indigenous Treaty partners.

We are living in a very exciting time right now. There are fundamental changes being triggered in these lands. Provincial curricula are being rewritten across the country to incorporate treaty education and Indigenous perspectives in their education systems. Here in Ontario, Indigenous perspectives have been woven into nearly every subject.

What this means is that a new generation of Canadians are being raised that will no longer tolerate the status quo.

Canadians are beginning to look for ways to reengage their treaty partners. With their unique ability to create community, connect with government, and be seen as above the political fray, the Queen of Canada and her representatives are a way to do that. They have the history and specific relationships needed for such tasks. To put it simply: they are family.

As we are learning from the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Residential School Program sought to destroy Indigenous languages and replace them with those that included concepts such as ceding, property ownership, and land surrenders. I would also argue that the lack of public education around foundational institutions such as the Crown in Canada over the past century or so has contributed to the gulf between non-Indigenous Canadians and First Nations.

Part of Reconciliation needs to include a re-engagement by Canadians in the mediums that once allowed for communication between our peoples and the gathering of diverse community together in peace and friendship.

The Crown is such a medium, and the Queen and her representatives are key to restoring the relationships that once allowed very different peoples to live together on the land. A new Royal Proclamation and Treaty of Niagara must acknowledge and honour the familial relationship created between the Queen and Indigenous Peoples that was compromised following Confederation. 

Nathan Tidridge is a teacher and member of the Quadrangle Society. His most recent book, The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation and the Dignified Crown in Canada, was launched by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Currently, Nathan serves on the Board of the Ontario Heritage Trust and the National Advisory Council for the Prince’s Charities Canada.


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