First Nations Leaders Use Royal Visit To Talk Reconciliation

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VANCOUVER — As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge toured British Columbia and the Yukon over the past week, they heard impassioned speeches on reconciliation and saw protest T-shirts emblazoned with slogans opposing oil and liquefied natural gas.

The focus on First Nations issues was already built into Prince William and Kate's itinerary, with stops in Bella Bella, the home of the Great Bear Rainforest, and Haida Gwaii, a remote and stunning archipelago sacred to some aboriginal people.

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge arrive at the Haida Heritage Centre and Museum on Sept. 30, 2016 in Haida Gwaii, B.C. (Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage)

Some indigenous leaders embraced the opportunity to criticize their federal and provincial governments in front of the duke and duchess. But there's a long tradition of aboriginal people appealing directly to the Royal Family, experts say.

First Nations have at times turned to the royals as a kind of "court of appeal,'' said Charles Menzies, an anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia.

The primary relationship of indigenous people has always been with the Crown of England, as opposed to elected governments, he said. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 required the Crown to enter into negotiations and settle treaties, Menzies said.

"That relationship has continued in that many First Nations communities have seen the royal court, the Royal Family, as the place to go to petition for recognition of rights,'' he said.

Union of B.C. Chiefs boycotted ceremony

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs boycotted a reconciliation ceremony, citing failures of the federal government. Others, including Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit, used the spotlight to urge the royal couple to push governments for reconciliation.

Menzies pointed out that most First Nations in B.C. have not signed treaties.

"More than two hundred years since Europeans first turned up on these shores, (governments) haven't really settled this,'' he said.

"The Royal Family — in a sense, the official leadership of Canada — has an important responsibility to tell their servants in government to get moving, to deal with the problem.''

"More than two hundred years since Europeans first turned up on these shores, (governments) haven't really settled this.''

Phillip said he believed his "highly respectful decision to politely decline'' the invitation to the reconciliation ceremony initiated a very spirited discussion across B.C. and Canada.

"It certainly has created a consciousness in the minds of Canadians and British Columbians that there are serious issues in relation to the appalling levels of poverty in aboriginal communities across this country, that by and large, are not being effectively addressed by the federal or provincial governments,'' he said in an interview.

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attend a welcome ceremony during a visit to the Haida Heritage Centre and Museum in Haida Gwaii, B.C. on Sept. 30, 2016. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/AFP via Getty Images)

Penticton Indian Band Chief Jonathan Kruger said he is proud that Phillip drew attention to aboriginal poverty in Canada. Kruger used his brief opportunity to speak at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus to urge the royals to advocate for reconciliation.

"My hope was to start something. Those were real words,'' he said. "I stand behind those words, and I'm hoping that those words affected the Royal Family and I hope that the federal and provincial government heard those words as well.''

When William and Kate arrived in a war canoe to the Haida Gwaii village of Skidegate on Friday, several paddlers were wearing T-shirts that read No LNG. Some band members dancing for the couple were wearing T-shirts under their traditional regalia reading: No pipelines. No tankers. No problem.

The royal visit came days after the federal government announced conditional approval for the controversial Pacific NorthWest LNG terminal.

"I'm hoping that those words affected the Royal Family and I hope that the federal and provincial government heard those words as well.''

Keith Roy, Western Canadian spokesman of the Monarchist League of Canada, said First Nations leaders have been a part of every royal tour and visit since Queen Elizabeth took the throne. But the community is much more active and visible on the West Coast, he said.

Roy said he didn't think the criticism raised by First Nations would be the lasting legacy of the tour. Instead, the efforts to highlight aboriginal culture are what will be remembered, he said.

"That's much more substantial and those are the things that people will remember,'' he said.

"They'll remember William and Catherine going up to Bella Bella, a place that would have otherwise not made anybody's radar on the world stage. That's much more impactful.''

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

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