British Columbia

Heiltsuk and Haida First Nations view Royal visit as chance for reconciliation

Indigenous leaders say Will and Kate will see a showcase of sovereignty and culture while visiting B.C.'s Bella Bella and Haida Gwaii.

B.C. Indigenous leaders say Will and Kate will see a showcase of sovereignty and culture during tour

Prince William and his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, will paddle a traditional canoe while visiting Haida Gwaii. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

When Prince William and Kate visit Bella Bella and Haida Gwaii as part of their royal tour of B.C., it will be the latest chapter in a longstanding relationship between the Royal Family and North Coast First Nations.

"There's certainly a history with royals and Indigenous communities," said Marilyn Slett, elected chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council while relating a story about a staff in the community that was presented to a Heiltsuk chief during a visit from the Royal Family in the 1880s.

That story, and the staff itself, will likely be incorporated into the day's events when the Royals arrive in Bella Bella on Sept. 26, she said.

A history of hospitality

While there is excitement about the royal visit, feelings towards the monarchy itself are mixed, said elected Heiltsuk tribal councillor Jess Housty.

"There are folks who feel that monarchy represents a lot what we fight in our day-to-day lives," she said.

"I think the unifying theme has been being good hosts and showing hospitality to our visitors. It's a really strong part of our culture and everybody has a drive to do that well." 

Jess Housty, with her son Noen, has 'very high hopes' the royal attention the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will bring to the Great Bear Rainforest will further enhance efforts to protect it. (Simon Kreitem)

Housty said it's the opportunity to showcase Heiltsuk initiatives like the multi-million hectare Great Bear Rainforest, protected from logging and industry, that has her energized for the visit.

The Great Bear Rainforest is home to the kermode or spirit bear, a unique subspecies of the black bear, in which one in ten cubs displays a white-coloured coat. (Ian McAllister)

"We've focused on the messaging that we feel strong in our sovereignty, we're proud of our homeland and the role that we have in protecting it," she said.

"And we're looking forward to the opportunity to showcase not just for the visiting dignitaries but for all of the world that will be watching while they're here." 

William and Kate will be taking an aerial tour of the Great Bear Rainforest before dedicating it as part of the Queen's Commonwealth Canopy Initiative

Another step towards reconciliation

Later in the week, William and Kate will visit Haida Gwaii. In Skidegate, they will board a traditional canoe and paddle to the Haida Heritage Centre and Museum.

Museum curator and Haida Nation member Nika Collison views the visit as an opportunity to forge a new relationship with the Royal Family.

"You know, our history spans back to the beginning of time, it spans back to before there was light, as one of my friends likes to say," she said. "This recent history with England, you know, it's not that old, but there's a lot being done to move forward."

The Haida Heritage Centre and Museum. (CBC)

"We see these people as a new generation and they seem to be carving a new path for their people and we're busy working on how we're moving ourselves forward as a nation."

It's a sentiment echoed by Marilyn Slett.

"People will see a strong and vibrant community and culture," she said. "They're going to see a small part of a global treasure that others call the Great Bear Rainforest, that we call home."

CBC will have coverage of the royal visit to Haida Gwaii. Carolina de Ryk will be hosting Daybreak North live from Jag's Beanstalk in Skidegate Friday morning from 6 to 9 a.m. PT

With files from Carolina de Ryk and Richard Zussman.