The smell of pot and stale beer wafted over a gritty stretch of sidewalk outside Sheway, on West Hastings Street, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside last Sunday. Moments before the arrival of the duke and duchess of Cambridge—“Wills and Kate,” as the British tabs still insist on referring to the couple, who are now in their mid-thirties—an older woman in black sweats shuffled past police barricades, leaning heavily on a walker, the stub of a cigarette gripped between two knuckles, oblivious to the hubbub. Across the street, a bare-chested man in his fifties stood at the window of his lonely single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel suite, scratching absently at his arms. A siren wailed in the distance.
The wet, grey morning, in other words, was like any other in the tough, east side neighbourhood—better known for ugly headlines than visits from foreign dignitaries. One from earlier in the week noted that a UN special rapporteur on housing declared herself “horrified” by local conditions, an apparent reference to a new tent city that sprouted recently on an empty Hastings lot.
Suddenly, the small crowd, made up of mostly Downtown Eastside locals, including a seven-year-old dressed as Snow White, let out an excited whoop. The visiting royals—Kate, in a red-and-white dress by the late designer Alexander McQueen, another nod to Canada—were sped to the front door of Sheway by a Vancouver Police Department motorcade, and hustled inside the charity that helps mothers, the majority of them Indigenous, overcome addiction issues.
Sure, the 2016 royal tour saw its share of fluffy moments: A memorable float-plane landing on Vancouver Harbour, a bike trip on a southern Yukon mountain. But this, the couple’s second tour of Canada—five years, and two kids into their marriage—was notable for its more difficult stops. They made for a far more sombre and overtly political tour than is typical of a royal affair.
The schedule took the couple to unceded Indigenous land to meet the Heiltsuk, the Haida, the Tlingit, forcing them to confront, first-hand, the ugly legacy of British colonization—the inequities, suicides and broken promises. (West of the Rockies, colonial authorities stopped negotiating treaties, leaving most of B.C. untreatied even today.)
This royal visit then, which came as the country grapples with a national reconciliation project and awaits Justin Trudeau’s promised “reset” in relations with the country’s first peoples, felt a lot more relevant, on point, and at times awkward, than any of these visits ever has before.
B.C. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) announced his refusal to take part in a planned reconciliation ceremony with the royals in Victoria. Phillip’s ire was largely aimed at Ottawa; he and the UBCIC want Canada to act on First Nations injustices, not just empty ceremonies like the Black Rod reconciliation event.
The tour served to re-introduce Canadians to First Nations like the Heiltsuk and the Haida, who safeguard massive swaths of the country’s coastal rainforest from clear-cut logging, offshore drilling, and other industrial activity. The Great Bear, on B.C.’s Central Coast, and Gwaii Haanas, sometime called “the Galapagos of the north,” are globally celebrated conservancies, and draw increasing numbers of foreign tourists to see the grizzlies, sea wolves, killer whales and cream-coloured Kermode bears they protect.
It’s no accident Haida Gwaii was chosen as a royal stop. It’s impossible to understand B.C.’s modern relationship with First Nations—or indeed, modern B.C.—without some understanding of the Haida’s 1980s battle against clear-cutting and the federal and provincial governments. It’s considered one of the first major conservation wins for a B.C. First Nation, and ultimately helped reshape political and legal maps in the province.
At the time, two-thirds of the remote islands then named the Queen Charlotte Islands had been logged. Unrestricted clear-cutting had destroyed ancient ruins, as well as many of the salmon runs and intertidal zones the Haida relied on—and they were fed up. Much of the logging work was being done by Western Forest Products, a company in which the majority of the B.C. cabinet, including then-premier Bill Bennett, held shares. Little benefit was accruing to the Haida, who, for more than 14,000 years, had called the craggy islands home; they’d never ceded title through treaty.
In October 1985 a small group stood arm-in-arm, blocking access to a logging road on Athili Gwaii (Lyell Island). They were protecting some of the islands’ last stands of old-growth cedar and Sitka spruce. The forest was also a burial site for those who’d died from smallpox (diseases introduced by European visitors had reduced Haida numbers from 60,000 to just 600).
Tensions rose when 25 RCMP officers were dispatched to protect a nearby logging camp. After eight months, police moved: In all, 72 Haida were arrested and charged with contempt. Among them were elders dressed in red and black button blankets. Images of little, old grannies in their regalia hauled off in handcuffs for the benefit of distant shareholders made headlines around the world.
Peace came in the way of an unprecedented accord between the Haida and Ottawa, who agreed to co-operatively manage what in 1993 became Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, a power-sharing arrangement that has since been emulated by Australia and New Zealand. These days, almost half the Haida homeland is protected.
In 2009, the Giving the Name Back with Respect Ceremony formally returned the name “Queen Charlotte Islands” to the province of B.C. in a bentwood box, a traditional Haida burial tomb. These days, the islands are again known as Haida Gwaii—“islands of the people.”
Many of the conservancy plans established at Haida Gwaii were later adopted by the Heiltsuk in Bella Bella, who also welcomed the royals this week, as they stopped to watch screeching gulls feast on a rotting salmon carcass and were greeted as hemas, a hereditary chief, and umaks, a woman of high rank. Woyola, the Heiltsuk’s head hereditary chief, presented William a royal staff given to his great-grandfather by Queen Victoria, William’s great-great-great-great-grandmother. The gift was said to be a symbol of the monarch’s commitment to Canada’s Indigenous people. Woyola wished to remind Will and Kate of that commitment.
The trip was nevertheless a risky bet for the royals, not just because Monday’s high winds and driving rains made for a bumpy arrival at Bella Bella’s tiny airport. Will, in waltzing in to dedicate the Great Bear Rainforest to the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy Initiative, a network of forest conservation efforts, risked angering some Heiltsuk, who’d devoted decades to trying to safeguard it from industry.
Although many Indigenous leaders played along during the tour—Trudeau’s Kwakwaka’wakw justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, was on hand to greet the royals in Bella Bella, and NDP MLA Melanie Mark, the first Indigenous woman elected to the B.C. Legislature, greeted the pair on the docks at Vancouver Harbour—some high profile leaders opted out of the royal tour.
“Our chiefs and matriarchs are the only royalty that command my loyalty,” Heiltsuk councillor Jessie Housty tweeted Sept. 26, as the royals flew into Bella Bella.
A week before Phillip, the B.C. grand chief, refused to attend the royal event in Victoria, five chiefs from the Nuu-chah-nulth, the influential, coastal tribal alliance centred around Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, announced that Trudeau was no longer welcome on their lands due to an ongoing dispute over Indigenous fishing rights. Francis Frank, a lead negotiator for the T’aaq-wiihak Nations, says Trudeau, who last visited Nuu-chah-nulth territory in August, with his family, has continued the “stalling and continued litigation” model developed by former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Others, including Mi’kmaq lawyer Pamela Palmater, who heads Ryerson University’s Centre for Indigenous Governance, want to see more from the royal couple: “Canada has gone through a truth and reconciliation process where some of the churches have apologized for their role; and Canada has apologized for its role. But we’re missing the biggest portion of the apology—and it’s from the people who actually orchestrated it: representatives of the British Crown.”
Palmater, the first public intellectual to call for an apology from Queen Elizabeth II, made this the focus of a recent keynote address at the British Library. “There can’t be any reconciliation until the British Crown and its people know what happened, know what the intergenerational impact has been and take responsibility for it and apologize and do something to make amends,” she said. Initially, the British audience on hand seemed shocked, but she was, in the end, treated to a standing ovation, and has been invited back to Britain this winter to press again for an apology. “This is their legacy,” says Palmater. “I want to know: What are they going to do to remedy that legacy?” Any apology of whatever form would, of course, have to come with approval from 10 Downing Street.
What William and Kate can do is help rebrand the 1,000-year-old institution, and inject “the firm” with the kind of caring and compassion that his mother once brought to it.
Shortly after they touched down last Saturday at 443 Squadron, the Royal Canadian Air Force base in Victoria, Kate crouched to comfort George, her three-year-old son. “Are you okay?,” she whispered, briefly turning her back to the greeting party, and stroking the boy’s cheek.
She rubbed the back of 17-month-old Charlotte, absently kissing her daughter’s head, allowing the smiling toddler to paw at the silver maple-leaf brooch pinned to her breast.
Later, she allowed a slight roll of the eye when her husband punctuated a greeting delivered in French in Victoria with an exaggerated sigh of relief. “It’s a little rusty,” he kidded—“work with me.”
The following day in Vancouver, the couple spent a full hour with the women of Sheway. They listened intently as the women recalled their struggles, the impact of colonialism, residential schools, abuse, explaining “how they grew up, and came to be down here,” Jaimie Poulin, the mother of two young girls explained.
Avoiding the searing pain of having a newborn torn from your arms is about the only way a mom in recovery can hope to stay clean, Ariane Armond, who lives two blocks east of Sheway told Maclean’s. For six years, her son was lost to foster care. Her warm, open face hardened in pain at the memory; her eyes moistened. She hoped the visit might help “open the eyes” of the world outside the neighbourhood, she said quietly.
“A lot of people shun us—because we’ve got dirty clothes on, because we’re First Nations, because we’re from the Downtown Eastside,” says Deana McDonald, a Gitxsan member, from B.C.’s Interior. “Will is different. He’s taking after his mom. He’s got that same, big heart. He’s showing the world that we are people—that we deserve love and attention, too.”