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Darrel J. McLeod is the author of Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, and the winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2018.

I have intense and mixed emotions as I process the conclusion of the era that is the reign of Elizabeth. I know that in the Indigenous world in Canada there will also be a spectrum of emotions – few will be indifferent.

My childhood memories are likely similar to those of most Indigenous people in Canada who grew up in a rural setting, on- or off-reserve. At age five or six, when you went to school, you saw a photo of the face of a white woman wearing a crown or an elegant tiara and, in my time, every morning you sang God Save the Queen and recited a pledge right after or before the Lord’s Prayer (interesting how the two seem to always go hand in hand in our lives, the intrusion of the state bolstered by that of the church). The melody and chord progressions held my attention and even stirred up my emotions in an interesting way, but I found the lyrics confusing: ”God save our gracious Queen.” Kids take things literally – save her from what? To me, she seemed pretty safe in her castle across the sea.

And I balked at the line: “long to reign over us.” As a kid with no awareness of the history of colonization and the concomitant usurpation of Indigenous lands and resources by British colonizers (i.e. the Royal Family), that line still instinctively troubled me greatly. Why was anyone reigning over us: over my family, which had lived apart from Western society for countless generations, and suppressing our freedoms and undermining our dignity – let alone someone who wasn’t one of us and never would be?

King Charles III proclaimed Canada’s new head of state in ceremony at Rideau Hall

Perhaps it was this existential angst that led me to accept a job, decades later, as a treaty negotiator with the federal government, negotiating with a large tribe in British Columbia. I decided I would work from within government to get the best deal possible for the First Nations I negotiated with. And I know my presence did make a difference in advancing negotiations. But I came up against the “Queen, Her Majesty in Right of Canada” construct a couple of times, and it stunned me. The first time was when I was asked to sign an oath of allegiance to her majesty – and as a Cree man, I simply couldn’t. I tucked the unsigned document under a heap of other papers, and it didn’t ever reappear. The second time was when I realized that the legal name for Canada, as party to any agreement, would be Her Majesty, the Queen in Right of Canada. It was greatly disturbing to me that I was representing the Queen, and that my role was actually to make right an unfathomable wrong her family and representatives had committed more than two centuries earlier.

In my books, Elizabeth as a monarch and simply as a human being didn’t attain the greatness she could have. As the head of state, obviously, she was hampered by the legal framework that defined her role – in our case, the Constitution of Canada. That being said, there are things she could have done, but failed to do: an apology for all the wrongs her ancestors committed in the process of colonization; reparation to Indigenous peoples in Canada through the establishment of a foundation for culture and language maintenance and restoration; the repatriation of valuable artifacts and assets stolen or usurped from former colonies; the establishment of educational initiatives within Britain about its history of colonization in Canada, and about First Nations current affairs and history – to ensure that Brits are all aware of their colonial past and of the need for reparation by their aristocrats and institutions.

At best, Elizabeth could have done all of the above, plus used moral persuasion vis-à-vis the provincial and federal governments of Canada to return what are now considered “Crown” lands to their rightful owners – the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Using the vast resources of her own family, she could have begun a process of acquisition of lands, both private and public, with the express intent of restoring significant holdings to First Nations.

In one of life’s strange quirks, I was invited to meet Prince Charles, now King Charles III, in Ottawa just a few months ago – I shook his hand and we exchanged a few words. I was underwhelmed. Nevertheless, in a spirit of hope, I say: God Save the King. May he have the insight and determination to accomplish what his mother wasn’t able to and use whatever time that might remain for the Windsor dynasty’s role in Canada to turn things around – to have his family divest itself of most of its vast wealth and status to make just reparations to Indigenous peoples in Canada.

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