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Canada’s Colonial History Thrust Into the Spotlight During the Royals Visit to BC

One Grand Chief dismissed Royal efforts towards reconciliation as a merely symbolic gesture.

by Hilary Beaumont
Sep 26 2016, 8:47pm


The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge greet elders in Bella Bella, BC. Photo by CP/Jonathan Hayward

During their visit to British Columbia, Will and Kate have paid their respects to Canadian veterans, visited a centre for mothers suffering from addiction on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and met with Syrian refugees—but the next leg of their trip brings the duke and duchess face-to-face with Britain's colonial past.

Though the royal visit has sparked excitement in communities across BC, some Indigenous leaders feel torn when it comes to the Royal relationship with First Nations. Penticton's Grand Chief Stewart Phillip refused to take part in a royal reconciliation ceremony today, saying "the suffering in our communities is too great." But other Indigenous artists and curators scheduled to take part in the tour look at the visit as a symbolic step toward reconciliation with the Crown, and its now independent colony since 1982, Canada.

The duke and duchess of Cambridge represent a hereditary monarchy with a long and violent history across the world as well as in Canada, and an imperialist Crown that once aimed under Queen Victoria"to found a second England (namely, British Columbia) on the shores of the Pacific"—on Indigenous territory.

On Monday, the couple were scheduled to fly over the Great Bear Rainforest, the proposed location of the Northern Gateway pipeline that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reiterated "is no place for a crude oil pipeline." And at a reception at Victoria's Government House on Monday, the duke and duchess viewed a Witness Blanket—an art installation comprised of artifacts from Canada's residential schools. The royals will also be welcomed by the Heiltsuk and Haida First Nations this week.

Kwaguilth artist Carey Newman's Witness Blanket is a 40-foot-long, 10-foot-tall installation that stands upright and consists of textiles, photos, documents and artifacts from Canada's dark legacy of residential schools. He hopes the royal visit will bring attention to that time.

"There's something symbolically important there where the descendants of the same hand that signed residential schools into law are confronting this history," said Newman, whose

father attended the schools that, according to a top government official of the time, had the goal to "kill the Indian in the child."

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission found them to be "part of a global imperial process" that removed 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and placed them in church-run schools. Their long hair was cut off, their names were changed to numbers, they were forbidden to speak their native languages, and more than 1,300 children were used in medical tests in provinces including British Columbia.

At least 6,000 children died of tuberculosis, malnutrition and abuse, among other things, and their bodies were buried in unmarked graves.

There were at least 22 of these schools in BC, and in that province, the last of the schools weren't shut down until 1984.

"I think that we're moving as a country into the reconciliation part of truth and reconciliation, but we still haven't finished with the business of truth," said Newman. "And I think that having [the duke and duchess], they still have the ability to affect a lot of change through their own reactions.

Artist Carey Newman hugs a residential school survivor following the unveiling of Witness Blanket, a large-scale woven blanket and national monument made using cedar wood and reclaimed items from residential schools. Photo by CP/Chad Hipolito

"I read a quote recently by [lawyer and Indigenous teacher] Pam Palmater who said there can be no reconciliation without acknowledgement by the Crown, and I think they have the ability to help make that happen."

But that reconciliation was dismissed today by Grand Chief Phillip as merely symbolic.

The chief was invited to join a "reconciliation ceremony" in which he would have presented Prince William with a ring representing reconciliation. Prince William would then have placed the ring on the Black Rod, which represents BC's relationship to the Crown.

But in a press release, the chief said, "with the deepening poverty of our communities, remembering the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the ongoing negligence of Indigenous child welfare policies across the country, in good conscience, I cannot participate in the Black Rod ceremony."

"The suffering in our communities is too great. I apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused with our decision. We do not mean any disrespect. It is a matter of principle."

The chief also cited ongoing disputes including the Site C Dam, which BC and the federal government have pushed for though the project would flood Indigenous territory.

Nika Collison, curator of the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate, where the royals will visit Friday, says she doesn't interpret the chief's words as "pointing his finger at our visitors."

"He's not disrespecting the royals," she said. Instead, she said he's calling on BC and Canada to improve their relationships with Indigenous peoples.

"We've survived the cultural and biological genocide against First Nations—that's *Canada's* shared history with us—but what we will not survive is the killing of the lands and waters, and oil and gas will kill our lands and waters," she said.

Collison, along with many others in the Haida Nation, are looking forward to the royal visit, which she says will give them an opportunity to meet with them on a "nation to nation" level, as two groups with a shared history. Previous generations of royals have "rubbed shoulders" with Haida people, but this will be the first time the Haida Nation has welcomed Will and Kate's generation, Collison said, adding that the Haida Nation is also home to a hereditary system of governance.

The Haida Nation has never ceded territory to the Crown, and has opposed the Northern Gateway pipeline in court.

Collison sees the Haida Nation's relationship with the duke and duchess as entirely separate from its relationship to BC and Canada, which are currently pushing forward infrastructure projects that the Nation, and other BC First Nations, oppose.

"If the royals can do anything with this visit, it's to spread the word that we need to focus on clean energy," Collison said. "We need to do away with oil and gas, and it's not OK to destroy our lands and waters with these pipelines and tankers."

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