Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s demand that the Governor-General attend a meeting with first nations on Friday is a publicity stunt and arises out of a lack of understanding, perhaps a willful one, about the role of the Crown and government in modern-day Canada.
Ms. Spence, who has been on a hunger strike for more than four weeks, has released a statement saying, “I will not be attending Friday’s meeting with the Prime Minister, as the Governor-General’s attendance is integral when discussing inherent and treaty rights.” Ms. Spence has written the Queen asking her to direct Gov.-Gen. David Johnston to attend.
In a 1982 ruling, Britain’s Court of Appeal made clear that responsibility for native peoples in Canada resides in Canada’s Parliament and its courts. "I think the obligations under the (royal) proclamation (of 1763) and the treaties are obligations in respect to Canada,” Lord Denning said in the ruling.
The Queen and her representatives take advice from politicians in Canada, not least Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but it is those politicians, and they alone, who are responsible for discharging of Canada’s treaty obligations.
It would be wrong to suggest that Mr. Johnston cannot meet with native leaders to hear their grievances. There may even be an interest in doing so. As the Supreme Court ruled in 1990, “the honour of the Crown is at stake in dealings with aboriginal peoples.”
The Queen has received an earful on several occasions, as has the Prince of Wales and past governors-general. While he should not be publicly coerced into having such a meeting, the Governor-General could act in the traditional role as the listener-in-chief as his predecessors and sovereigns have done.
In fact, the Government of Canada underscored the importance of this symbolic relationship last year when it had Mr. Johnston attend and speak at the Crown-First Nations Gathering.
But what the Governor-General cannot do is attend a substantive meeting to discuss issues, or negotiate treaty settlements. And that is what Ms. Spence seems to be demanding. It is as if she sees the Crown and the government of Canada as separate entities. This is a fantasy that native leaders need to put to rest.