The protests and blockades that erupted across Canada in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, as well as the systemic inequities Indigenous People face during this global health crisis, underscore the urgency of building coherent and mutually acceptable nation-to-nation relationships with First Nations. Access to water, education, proper healthcare, land rights/sovereignty, and infrastructure, as well as numerous other immediate needs, require the sustained attention of the Government of Canada.

In the ultimate goal of rebuilding our Federation to reflect the Treaties threaded across the land, a crucial step is required: restoring the Crown (the Queen and her representatives) to its intended role in the relationships with Indigenous People.

Before it became a colonizing force, the Crown acted as a mechanism that enabled settlers to engage in meaningful negotiations and ceremony with civilizations that were very different from their own. Confederation later disrupted these relationships, eclipsing treaties and placing them under the control of the federal government – without the consent of Indigenous People. That is why restoring the formal, or dignified, Crown (the Queen and her representatives in their personal, ceremonial and constitutional capacities) to its role as a Treaty partner is a critical step in decolonization and instilling respect for Indigenous teachings.

It was this original relationship that was invoked at the height of the blockade crisis earlier this year when the Sha’tekarihwate family of the Mohawk Nation addressed a letter to the Queen invoking the Silver Covenant Chain of Friendship (a historic and enduring 17th-century Treaty that binds the monarch with the Mohawk Nation). Highlighting the recent events in Wet’suwet’en territory, the letter reminded the Sovereign that “as a part of our allied relationship, we are required to bring issues to you when they concern your citizens.” The relationship the Mohawks underlined in the letter is the very foundation of the society envisioned in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the early Treaties were formed.

The words used in defining Treaty include descriptors such as trust, honour and love, emphasizing that the personal relationships established with the holders of Canada’s highest offices, the Sovereign and her representatives, are fundamental to rebuilding the country’s Treaty relationships. Treaty binds them with their Indigenous counterparts as family – a relationship that supersedes anything that can be established with a politician or government.

When Treaty relationships are understood as being familial, contemporary and meaningful, paths toward reconciliation present themselves. Too often, state ceremonies and protocols are dismissed by mainstream Canadians as mere “pageantry” or window dressing. This interpretation runs the risk of depriving the country of effective and meaningful ways to convey and transmit our history, relationships and collective experiences.

An Indigenous teaching is that for non-Indigenous People, ceremony often bookends the real work of governments, whereas for Indigenous People, it is interwoven into the entire process. In Canada, the Queen and her representatives sit at the apex of our state and are therefore the keepers of our highest protocols and national ceremony.

The unique relationships between the Queen’s representatives and First Nations provide vehicles for convening community – bringing together diverse stakeholders in a non-partisan way to focus on a particular issue – and fostering communication that are not available to politicians tied to a system dominated by a four-year election cycle.

Invitations from the governor general, an office bound to Indigenous People through Treaty and infused with centuries of history, are more readily accepted than those from a politician or government. This unique power allows members from different communities and perspectives to gather in the apolitical space that is required to reflect the values inherent in Treaty.

The power to convene community in no way interferes with the convention of responsible government. However, it can build on the Crown’s traditional rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn, first articulated by the 19th-century British constitutional expert Walter Bagehot. The Crown’s unique ability to convene community above the political fray is even more important in these polarized and volatile times.

Since 2018, we have submitted a series of recommendations to various federal ministries (including Crown-Indigenous Relations and the Department of Canadian Heritage) that would help the Office of the Governor General better reflect the ancient relationships that are intrinsically tied to the Crown in this country. These changes, which are critical in rebuilding Canada’s relationship with Indigenous People, would require action by the Prime Minister’s Office, in close consultation with Indigenous leaders, elders, knowledge keepers and Rideau Hall. They are the following:

Indigenous leaders must have unimpeded access to the Queen and her representatives

The Privy Council Office should be mandated to facilitate meetings between Indigenous leaders and the Queen and/or the governor general, as opportunities for nation-building and fostering reconciliation. Indigenous People understand their Treaty relationships as a kinship tie to the Queen and her representatives. As part of any nation-to-nation framework, First Nations should have reliable access to the Sovereign and the governor general. Currently, the Canadian government often discourages the Queen or her Canadian representatives from meeting with Indigenous leaders when they request an audience. Such interference is, by definition, perpetuating a colonial relationship and violating the Indigenous and Treaty rights recognized and affirmed in Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

The official responsibilities of the governor general should include honouring the kinship relationships between the Crown and Indigenous People

Reaffirming the governor general as a formal Treaty partner (a role that need not endanger the convention of responsible government) would create opportunities for the meaningful education of the public, as well as the government of the day. There would also be unique opportunities to convene community. Honouring Treaty relationships, including the ties of kinship, should be a central and publicized responsibility of the governor general. Excellent models of this relationship can already be found in most provinces, including British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

The Office of the Governor General needs to promote and support nation-to-nation Treaty relationships

The governor general’s staff should include a permanent member dedicated to developing the corporate memory required to honour and observe the protocols, ceremonies, histories, and relationships of kinship involving the Queen’s official representative. The Office of the Governor General should also establish an “Office of Indigenous Protocol” and/or add responsibilities to the position of the Secretary to the Governor General to liaise with First Nations across the country. This office could become a resource for other vice-regal or government officials in their ceremonial interactions with Indigenous nations.

One of the focuses of the Office of the Governor General should be the protocols observed during formal meetings between the governor general and Indigenous leaders. These meetings should be akin to those between the Queen’s official representative and high commissioners, ambassadors, and/or heads of state/government.

Rideau Hall should have a permanent space dedicated to honouring Treaty relationships

Rideau Hall, as well as other government houses and vice-regal offices, needs a dedicated space to highlight Treaty relationships, and to welcome Indigenous delegations meeting with the governor general, as well as to observe important protocols and ceremonies, including accepting petitions. Rideau Hall is famously referred to as “the home of the people of Canada,” and a space devoted to honouring these important relationships would symbolically place treaties at the very heart of Canada’s home. This should be a space reflecting the living Treaty responsibilities of the Queen and her federal representative.

The Queen and her representatives must issue a “Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation” 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action No. 45, echoing the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, states that a new beginning in the relationship between Indigenous People and Canada “ . . . can best be done by a new Royal Proclamation, issued by the Queen as Canada’s head of state and the historical guardian of the rights of Aboriginal peoples, and presented to the people of Canada in a special assembly called for the purpose.” This Call to Action needs to be implemented. Moreover, the involvement of the Queen and her Canadian representatives in issuing this proclamation would be an important opportunity to reaffirm their roles as caretakers and witnesses to the Treaty relationships that bind them to Indigenous People across the land.

Treaties, like the institution of the monarchy, articulate ideals that evolve – or devolve – depending on those who are engaged with them. They are meant to be the best reflections of their respective members or nations: we use aspirational terms to describe the standards and relationships that Treaties and the Crown are expected to embody. They also require strong relationships between the parties involved. As noted earlier, Confederation disrupted these relationships, putting the relationships forged through treaties under the control of the federal government, without the consent of Indigenous People.

To rebuild its relationships with Indigenous People, Canada needs to restore the dignified Crown to its intended role within the Treaty relationships. Of course, in Canada, these changes depend on the Prime Minister’s Office. In our constitutional monarchy, the Crown requires the advice of its first minister to act on these recommendations and begin the process of honouring the nation-to-nation relationships established over the last five centuries. These actions could help transform an institution seen by many as the supreme colonial office into what it was intended to be: an institution honouring Canada’s Treaty relationships and responsibilities, binding Canadians with their Indigenous partners in dynamic relationships across this land.

It’s time the prime minister gave this advice.

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Governor General Julie Payette delivers the Throne Speech in the Senate chamber, on December 5, 2019 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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John Fraser
John Fraser is the founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada at Massey College. Fraser is a Canadian journalist, author, and academic, who served as Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto from 1995-2014.
Nathan Tidridge
Nathan Tidridge is the vice-president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada at Massey College. An educator by profession, Tidridge was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 2017, highlighting his work in understanding the complex relationships between Indigenous People and the Crown.

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