Some of my great-aunties told me a story of how, when they were growing up, they remember their mother, my great-grandmother, making them dress up in their fanciest clothes (okay, their cleanest clothes – as they lived with next to nothing in the bush). Then, they waited alongside the railway tracks for a special train to pass north of Lake Superior on its way west.
The year was 1939, and on the train was King George VI and his bride, Queen Elizabeth, visiting Canada on a royal tour.
I can only wonder whether they thought, as the train whizzed by: “Is that it?”
For that generation of First Nations people – many of them fresh out of Indian residential school – the British monarchy was to be revered and respected. They were the sovereign, the ones who signed the treaties that formed the country. The ones who promised to take care of all their subjects fairly.
In the wake of former astronaut Julie Payette’s resignation as governor-general last week, amid allegations that she was abusive to her staff, there have been calls to appoint an Indigenous governor-general to act as the Queen’s representative. That person would be the stand-in for Canada’s head of state – the one who delivers the Speech from the Throne, hands out awards, carries out the Queen’s parliamentary duties, and holds reserve powers to ignore prime ministerial advice and appoint or dismiss a PM.
Some people – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – have argued that giving this $270,602-salaried post to an Indigenous person would be a true sign that Canada is ready for reconciliation. But really, it would be a shocking ask of any Indigenous person, considering that the monarchy has spent centuries looking the other way while crimes of colonialism were being committed.
This list is long and it continues to this day. It starts with ignored treaties and the stealing of land, and the abuse of power that it reflects. Every single treaty has gone unfulfilled in the spirit of which they were intended – as nation-to-nation agreements – dating back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by the Canadian government every single year as they fight their fiduciary responsibility. The Indian Act of 1876 not only corralled our people onto reserves and took away their treaty rights if they tried to hire lawyers, organize politically or go to university – it also legalized the removal of our children so they could be placed in residential schools. When those closed, the provincial child welfare system ascended in its place.
Don’t even get me started on Canada’s fight against Jordan’s Principle, an act passed unanimously in Parliament in 2007 that ensures all First Nations kids are given fair access to education, health and social services. The First Nations Child and Family Caring Society and its warrior leader, Cindy Blackstock, have fought Canada for 14 years to get the government to live up to its own laws. The latest blow came last year, when Canada filed a judicial review of the CHRT rulings that granted services to kids who are recognized by their nations. Thankfully, the kids remain eligible pending a Federal Court decision.
And there are 57 long-term boil-water advisories right now on reserves in Canada. One community, Neskantaga First Nation, has waited more than a quarter of a century for what every Canadian living in a city or town enjoys: clean water flowing through the taps.
An Indigenous governor-general won’t be a sign of reconciliation, because there can be no reconciliation without basic human rights.
Canada spends about $34-million a year to keep the Office of the Secretary to the Governor-General running, according to the March 2020 financial statements. Travel, accommodation, vacation pay, computers, the handing out of medals and buying of official gifts are all included – though, to be fair, the office did bring in some revenue to the public purse: $19,140 in heraldic user fees.
But imagine what could be done with $34-million a year. That could permanently fix a water station in Neskantaga and in another northern community.
Of course, that would mean forgoing the canapés at Rideau Hall garden parties. I can already hear the monarchists yelling, too – that the GG is integral to the parliamentary system in this country.
But here’s a thought: What about changing the parliamentary system, and reforming it in favour of a new path forward? Is that not worth a discussion?
Barbados, for instance, is planning to remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state by the end of 2021. That follows in the spirit of Errol Barrow, the country’s first prime minister after it gained independence in 1966, who said that the country should not “loiter on colonial premises.” Perhaps those are words to live by.
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