For many Indigenous people across Canada, the death of Queen Elizabeth II isn’t an occasion to mourn, but a chance to re-examine the monarchy’s legacy of subjugation as colonizers, with leaders calling on the new King to denounce the Doctrine of Discovery.
Queen Elizabeth II, the U.K.’s longest serving monarch, passed away at the age of 96 on Thursday, sparking off official mourning periods in both the U.K. and Canada.
But reflecting on her 70 year legacy can bring up painful memories and anger for those who had their land and culture stolen from them in the name of the Crown.
“Since colonization began, there’s always been a difficult relationship with the Indigenous peoples here in Canada,” Terry Teegee, B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief, told CTV National News.
“We all know what had happened over the last 100 years with the residential school policy, also really genocidal policies such as the Indian Act and placing us on reserves and taking us off our lands.”
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin acknowledged this dissonance in a statement Thursday afternoon honouring the Queen’s memory.
“Mention of the Crown conjures up a wide range of reactions among Canadians,” he wrote. “Indigenous peoples in particular equate the Monarchy with a long history of colonization and domination. The complex task of reconciliation continues to challenge Canada and, there is no doubt in my mind that a lifetime of service and duty gave her Majesty a unique appreciation of the need to address history’s failures and make way for change.”
With the throne passing to King Charles III, this could be that time for change, Teegee said.
“I think it’s an opportune time to change the relationship with the monarchy, to change that relationship with the crown.”
When Europeans showed up hundreds of years ago on the shores of the land we now call Canada, they wielded a framework of colonization referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery to justify seizing land that was already occupied.
The Doctrine of Discovery started as a series of papal bulls and became the legal precedent used by colonizers to claim “undiscovered” land in the name of their monarch.
While it was officially rejected by Canada last year, the doctrine has never been renounced by the Crown itself.
“What we’re calling upon King Charles III to do is repeal and denounce the Doctrine of Discovery,” Teegee said. “Which allowed the colonization of what we all know as Canada. And what we would also like to see is not only what we called upon previously as an apology, but to further decolonize these lands.”
Roseanne Archibald, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, also acknowledged in a statement on Twitter on Sunday that the Queen’s passing brings up complicated emotions for many.
“Let’s remember that grief & accountability can exist in the same space, simultaneously,” she wrote.
She added that the 45th call to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report called for a “Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown” to reaffirm nation-to-nation relations between Indigenous people in Canada and the Crown.
Part of this call to action is to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People nation-wide, and renew or establish proper treaty relationships to ensure Indigenous people are equal partners.
The monarchy isn’t merely a distant, symbolic overseer for Indigenous people in Canada — there are historical treaties signed by the Crown still being re-interpreted in courts today, with direct impacts on the Indigenous communities involved.
For instance, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled in 2018 that the Crown had a duty to increase annuities paid out in connection to a specific set of treaties.
The Robinson-Huron and Robinson-Superior Treaties, often referred to just as the Robinson treaties, related to land around the north of Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and were signed in 1850.
In 2001, Anishinaabe plaintiffs brought the case to court, pointing out that a clause in the treaties promised them an increase in annual annuity payments in pace with rising revenue in the surrendered territory. The last time the annuity was recalculated was more than 100 years ago in 1875, when it was increased from roughly $1.70 to four dollars per person.
Although the 2018 decision ruled that the Crown did need to increase these payments, the lengthy legal battle emphasizes “that bringing forward issues of treaty injustices in the courts is a costly and time-consuming process”, a special report by the Yellowhead Institute pointed out.
Ensuring that these treaties are being upheld and interpreted fairly is a huge part of reconciliation, experts say.
Whether anything will truly change in the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people in Canada now that King Charles III is at the helm remains to be seen.
Archibald told CTV’s Power Play on Friday that when she met King Charles III recently, prior to the Queen’s passing, she felt he “had a real honesty about wanting to be a part of solutions.”
“I did ask him to relate to his late mother that there needs to be an apology by the crown for the failures, and particularly for the destructiveness of colonization on First Nations people and the role of the Anglican Church and the crown as the head of that church, and many of those institutions of assimilation and genocide,” she said.
Teegee mentioned King Charles III’s recent visit to Yukon, where he “spoke to residential school survivors and spoke of the atrocities that the monarchy has placed on Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere,” as a sign that change could be possible.
“I think there’s a real opportunity to change that relationship because as part of reconciliation, we need a change in terms of our relations with not only the monarchy, but all levels of government.”
With files from CTV National News Reporter Vanessa Lee