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Prince Charles is greeted by well-wishers in St. John's on May 17.PAUL CHIASSON/AFP/Getty Images

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall began their tour of Canada confronted by the legacy of British colonialism, and faced calls for the Crown to apologize for the trauma left behind by the country’s residential school system.

In an address at the Confederation Building in St. John’s, the seat of Newfoundland and Labrador’s government where they were greeted by a military salute and cheering school children waving miniature Canadian and Newfoundland flags, Prince Charles acknowledged he’s arrived in Canada at a time of historic reckoning with its Indigenous people.

“We must find new ways to come to terms with the darker and more difficult aspects of the past, acknowledging, reconciling and striving to do better,” he told a crowd of dignitaries, in a speech in both French and English. “It is a process that starts with listening. My wife and I look forward to listening to you, and learning.”

The Prince and his wife, Camilla, spent the afternoon in St. John’s, where they were greeted in public ceremonies that celebrated the province’s Indigenous peoples, including prayers in the Inuit language, performances by an Inuk singer and Inuit drummers, and Mi’kmaq music. There were also displays of Newfoundland’s famous folk culture – a military brass band played Ordinary Day by the band Great Big Sea, and there was a showcase of local knitters and artisans.

The royal couple, who arrived in St. John’s on a Canadian Forces plane from Oxfordshire, England, had a quiet moment of reflection outside the official residence of the lieutenant-governor, taking part in a smudging ceremony at a garden built in memory of the thousands of Indigenous children who suffered in residential schools in Canada.

Some Indigenous leaders, including Johannes Lampe, president of Nunatsiavut, the Inuit government in northern Labrador, declined invitations to attend the royal visit, and opted to stay home. Others called on the Prince to acknowledge the British Crown’s role in reconciliation, and address the history of Canada’s colonial past.

“I would have liked to hear the Prince apologize for all the atrocities we’ve gone through in our past,” said Chief Mi’sele Joe, of Newfoundland’s Miawpukek First Nation, who led the smudging ceremony at a heart garden.

“If he’s got a heart at all, I hope he’ll hear us and understand what we’ve gone through in this province, under a colonial government. As Mi’kmaq people, we were slaughtered by the British.”

Elisabeth Penashue, a 78-year-old elder from Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation in Labrador, handed the Prince a memoir that she said she hopes will help his understanding of her people’s history, and their struggle to keep their way of life.

“I want Prince Charles to know about the Innu people, and how we lived, before the government disrupted our lives,” she said, speaking in the Innu language, and translated by her daughter, Kanani Davis.

“It’s really important they hear our stories, that they understand, and that they acknowledge their role in what happened.”

It’s the first time the Prince has visited Canada since the recent wave of discoveries of unmarked graves at residential school sites around the country, and the royal tour comes as Commonwealth countries around the world are increasingly questioning their link to the monarchy.

Less than two months ago, Prince William and Kate Middleton faced protests on their tour of the Caribbean, where they heard calls for apologies and reparations for the slave trade, and were forced to cancel their visit to Belize. Last month, Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, were told by the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda that the country wanted to cut ties to the monarchy, and had to postpone a visit to Grenada because of local opposition.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declined to say if the Crown should apologize to Canada’s Indigenous people for the legacy of residential schools. But he said he hopes the royal couple hear the perspectives of First Nations communities during their visit here.

“It’s an opportunity for them to meet with all kinds of Canadians from different backgrounds, including Indigenous Canadians, to talk about the things that we continue to need to work on, including reconciliation,” Mr. Trudeau said, during a scrum with reporters outside a child-care centre at Memorial University in St. John’s.

While some Commonwealth countries, such as Barbados, have said they want to sever ties with the British Crown, Mr. Trudeau said Canada’s relationship with the monarchy is not high on the list of things that Canadians want to change.

“When I hear from Canadians and the things they want us to work on, it’s not about constitutional change,” he said, later adding he knows the Royal Family is committed to doing the work needed to fix Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous people.

Later in the day, Prince Charles and Camilla also met with local artisans and representatives of Newfoundland’s culinary and craft beer scene. At Government House, he met with the Campaign for Wool Canada, a project he launched in 2014 that’s dedicated to developing a domestic wool industry, and talked to knitters from a non-profit group that produces hand-knit sweaters, socks, hats, mitts and other goods.

Before they left for Ottawa, Canada’s Governor-General Mary Simon urged the royal couple to talk to more Indigenous people on their journey across Canada.

“I encourage you to learn the truth about our history, the good and the bad,” she said. “In this way, we will promote healing, understanding and respect. And in this way, we will also promote reconciliation.”

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