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John Fraser (left) at the Chapel Royal, situated within the grounds of St James's Palace, with the Reverend Paul Wright. The three tobacco pouches brought from Canada for presentation to the new King are on the altar.Handout

John Fraser is the founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada and the author of Funeral for a Queen: Twelve Days in London, published by Sutherland House Books.

No one actually predicted an easy ride for the newly ascended King Charles of Canada, or even King Charles III of England. In fact, in Canada there are republican-minded folk eager to begin some sort of constitutional reset to render the country crownless as soon as humanly possible. As if on cue, elected separatist members of Quebec’s National Assembly have made the oath of loyalty to the new sovereign an issue.

More pertinent is the kind of ahistorical chatter coming from some London, Ont.-area school-board trustees who have been floating the idea of removing the names of Charles and other members of the Royal Family, past and present, from the city’s public schools. We don’t have much civic education in Canada any more, but by God, we could give honorary doctorates in “virtue signalling.”

“Although a member of the Royal Family,” a committee report commissioned by the Thames Valley District School Board says, “Charles does not have an explicit connection to Canada and has been honoured for his identity as a royal as opposed to his contributions. … The Royal Family was at the centre of policies resulting in land theft from First Nations people.”

Hmmm. First of all, it was not members of the Royal Family who were at the centre of stealing land from the Indigenous nations. It was the non-Indigenous relatives and antecedents of the Thames Valley District School Board trustees, and others, who did the dirty deed: in other words, us. (Of course more recent immigrants and their descendants aren’t directly responsible for land theft, but if they aren’t Indigenous themselves all immigrants take on the Canadian story and Canadian responsibility when they become citizens.) And perhaps we can allow Charles a smidgeon of Canadian relevance since he is actually our duly constituted head of state. Also his Prince’s Trust Canada charity probably has done as much if not more for marginalized youth – and particularly marginalized Indigenous youth – than any number of government programs.

The charges of colonialism and racism against this King for past sins such as slavery and land theft don’t fit him at all. Particularly for Canada, Charles was a champion of Indigenous rights and reconciliation long before Canada itself was. Not only that, but his family’s relations with the Indigenous nations, going right back to the reign of Queen Anne in the 17th and 18th centuries, are inextricably linked to the once-forgotten history of Canada, which is only now re-emerging.

This is a tale I tried to tell in a recently published book that principally focuses on the extraordinary 12 days of national and international mourning after the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession to the throne of King Charles. It has to do with the long-shrouded relationship of treaties and trust between the Crown and several Indigenous nations. This relationship came to be symbolized in the little-known and less-understood creation of “chapels royal” in Canada, which encompass the gratitude and loyalty of the Crown to Indigenous treaty partners through the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, II, III and IV, William IV, Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II and now Charles III.

Originally a “chapel royal” was merely a group of priests and singers who accompanied the English sovereign when he toured his realm. It was Henry VIII in the 16th century who wanted a more permanent setup, and at two of his new palaces – St. James’s in London and Hampton Court – the first chapels royal became structures. In time, there were several more throughout the United Kingdom, but through the entire Commonwealth, only Canada has been honoured with three chapels royal: two associated with the Mohawk First Nation and the most recent at Massey College in the University of Toronto, which honours the Crown’s relationship with the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Why these honours here? The first two Mohawk chapels in the Brantford, Ont., area were created to honour the treaty relations between the Crown and the Mohawks in campaigns against the French presence in Canada and later against the American rebels. The Mohawks’ traditional territory was in what is now upstate New York, but after the rebels won, the Crown granted land to the Mohawk Nation in Canada. The Mississaugas’ chapel at Massey College honours that nation’s special relationship with Queen Victoria, who helped settle a land dispute in the early part of the 19th century, but it was Queen Elizabeth who earmarked the Massey chapel in 2017, during Canada’s sesquicentennial year, to symbolize reconciliation as well as the links with the Crown.

And it was Mississauga Chief Stacey Laforme who underscored the significance in his letter of support for the chapel. “My people’s ancestors were at Niagara when the Silver Covenant Chain of Friendship was extended in these lands over 250 years ago,” he wrote. “It is in the spirit of this gathering that this chapel will serve as a place to gather regularly for this and future generations. Confederation set aside our treaty relationships, beginning a very dark chapter in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples on these lands. The establishment of this Chapel Royal – a space to reflect, learn and reconnect – by her Majesty and the Massey community 150 years later is a profound act of reconciliation. It will become, in effect, a new council fire for our peoples to gather around in love and friendship.”

When it was learned by representatives of both nations that I was travelling to London to write a short book on the funeral of the late Queen and accession of the new King, I got transformed into a usefully deployed tobacco runner, bringing three pouches of sacred tobacco – a traditional Indigenous medicinal plant – for presentation to the new King, both to celebrate old relationships and to buttress the process of reconciliation. One pouch was from the Mohawk nation, the other from the Mississaugas, and a special third from the former national Indigenous leader Perry Bellegarde, who is a personal friend of King Charles. When Charles was still Prince of Wales, Mr. Bellegarde had given the future king of Canada tobacco seeds grown in the Chapel Royal gardens in Waterdown, Ont. And these have produced small crops grown and harvested in the King’s royal gardens ever since.

Facilitating all this is a great friend of all the chapels royal, the Reverend Paul Wright, sub-dean of the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace and principal chaplain to the Queen, and now to the King. And it was to St. James’s Palace that I headed on my mission on the Sunday morning, the day before the final obsequies for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. The service I got to attend was for the benefit of the Royal Household and the sub-dean is the household’s specific go-to priest. Luckily for Canada and Indigenous leaders who value the link to the Crown, Mr. Wright did part of his priestly training in northern Manitoba and worked extensively in Indigenous communities.

Although small – the Chapel Royal can only hold about 150 people, including the choir – the sense of its history is strong. The heart of Queen Mary the First (Henry VIII’s eldest daughter) is buried below the choir stalls. It was here that Queen Elizabeth I came to pray as she awaited messages of the progress and fate of the Spanish Armada. This was also the last place King Charles I knelt in prayer on the final morning of his life and took Holy Communion before being led to a nearby, specially constructed scaffolding for his execution. And it is also here that the gift of sacred tobacco from the North American Indigenous nations was resting discreetly behind one of the altar candlesticks, awaiting its presentation to King Charles. As I sat and kneeled in contemplation and prayer in this remarkable place on this particular Sunday morning, the day before the most extraordinary funeral of our times, it struck me that something important was happening beyond the funeral itself, something of a correction to history only achievable through the good graces of royalty and Indigenous forbearance and forgiveness.

Portraits of the ‘Four Kings of Canada’ were painted in 1710 by a Dutch artist during their visit to London as diplomatic envoys. Clockwise from left: Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row (Hendrick) of the Six Nations’ who led the delegation; Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow (Brant); Etow Oh Koam (Nicholas); and Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row (John).Illustration by LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

In 1710, during the reign of Queen Anne, five Indigenous leaders made the perilous trip from North America to England. One of their number died en route and thus it was three Mohawk chiefs and a fourth Mohican leader from the Algonquin nation who headed the delegation to St. James’s Palace. They were quickly dubbed “the Four Kings of Canada” by the curious local media, but tellingly they were received as heads of their nations. This meant they were accorded full head-of-state ceremonies, transported to St. James’s Palace in official coaches, received by the Queen in some state, exchanged gifts, including sacred tobacco, and attended by some of the great officers of state. What was everyone really up to? What was the realpolitik of the moment? Simple. It was a treaty and about an alliance between the British Crown and these nations and, inevitably, against the French in Quebec.

More than 300 years later, in June, 2019, a historic gathering took place at the Chapel Royal at Massey College. Perry Bellegarde was still the national Indigenous chief and he made an extraordinary address inside the chapel to governor-general Julie Payette and all the other representatives of the Queen in Canada: the lieutenant-governors of the provinces and the territorial commissioners from the high north.

Mr. Bellegarde’s message was both profound and simple: “You are the direct representatives of the Queen and therefore the holders of a sacred trust on behalf of the Crown. Each of you must be aware of this history and the significance of treaty as part of your high office. While the government of the day has a role to operationalize the treaty obligations held by the Crown, the Queen’s representatives are the caretakers and witnesses to this immutable relationship.”

For too long, Mr. Bellegarde continued, both our institutions have been taken for granted and thought powerless. In fact, he argued, it was the opposite. “We have much we can do together to teach the importance of protecting the gifts of land the Creator bequeathed us.” Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and the host of this extraordinary event, reiterated the point later: “There is so much that we all must do, but particularly those of us with a platform, if we are going to continue to be resilient in the years ahead.”

That was in 2019. Two years later, in his final foray as Prince of Wales, Charles made reconciliation the key element in his “homecoming” to Canada and gave a strong hint what his priorities would be when he became king. That was why these small gifts of tobacco, on the high altar of his premier Chapel Royal awaiting delivery, carried such significance. They symbolized the effort to continue telling a better story than the one that had been told for a century and a half of forced assimilation and cultural malfeasance. It is an effort to return to the implied relationship of equals when the Four Kings of Canada parlayed mutual commitments with the Queen at St. James’s Palace.

It was with thoughts like this that some of us emerged into the courtyard outside the chapel, and it was those same thoughts that carried our prayers and petitions as we foregathered in London for the solemn day that was to follow, solemn but grateful for the life and reign of the late Queen, solemn but hopeful for the life and reign of the new King. And grateful for an ancient link to the First Nations of Canada and the actual exchange of gifts, which took place a few weeks later, and was gratefully acknowledged by King Charles.