Local Indigenous leaders reflect on Queen's complicated legacy

The Queen leaves behind a history of colonial abuse and treaties that need more attention, so looking forward to King Charles's reign, some community leaders say they want a monarch who will be more personally engaged in Crown-Indigenous relations.

Treaties, residential schools part of how late-monarch will be remembered

Algonquin elder Claudette Commanda says she's looking for an improved relationship with the new monarch. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

Three local Indigenous leaders are reflecting on the complex legacy of Queen Elizabeth after her passing.

The long-reigning monarch, who was Canada's head of state, died Thursday at the age of 96 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.

For these three, the Queen leaves behind a history of colonial abuse and treaties that need more attention. Looking forward to King Charles's reign, they say they want a monarch who will be more personally engaged in Crown-Indigenous relations.

Sara Mainville was partially inspired to study law by the Queen.

Now a lawyer at JFK Law in Toronto, Mainville said she felt a direct connection to the Crown growing up as an Anishinābe woman in Treaty 3 territory, the land agreement signed in 1873 by the Canadian government and first nations in northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba.

Sara Mainville is an Anishinābe lawyer at a firm in Toronto. (Dean Kalyan)

"That treaty is central to our lives, to our identity — [I grew up] knowing that I had this relationship to the Queen of England," she said.

Mainville studied law at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and said her work is informed by an understanding of "what should be happening" in terms of Crown-Indigenous relations.

Regrettably, she said, Elizabeth fell short in that relationship.

"It's like having a great grandmother that's kind of absentee," she said. "You respect the fact that she's part of the family and that she holds this important position, but the relationship is not a good one."

Mainville views the British monarch as "the last recourse" in that damaged treaty relationship.

The Queen remained largely apolitical throughout her reign, but Mainville says she believes reconciliation requires the personal attention of King Charles moving forward.

Royal Family linked to residential schools

When he was seven years old, Bill Namagoose attended the Horden Hall residential school in Moose Factory, Ont. The school was run by the Anglican Church — a form of Christianity in which the monarch is the ceremonial head.

Bill Namagoose says it's up to King Charles now to apologize for the legacy of residential schools. (Submitted by Bill Namagoose.)

Namagoose, now the executive director of the Cree Nation Government, said his view of the Crown is coloured by his experience there. 

A member of the Waskaganish Cree First Nation in northern Quebec, Namagoose said his emotional response to the Queen's death was mixed. For him, the Royal Family is closely linked to the "dispossession and marginalization" of Indigenous lands and people.

He says he wanted to hear an apology from the Queen. 

"She should have, could have. That's also on the Crown, on the Royal Family as an institution," he said. 

That responsibility now falls on her successor, Namagoose said. 

'Let's create a new history'

As both a mother and grandmother, Anishinābe elder Claudette Commanda said she empathizes with the Royal Family.

"They are grieving," she said. "And we have to show that kindness."

Claudette Commanda poses in front of the former Prince of Wales Bridge, which was recently renamed the Chief William Commanda Bridge after her grandfather, in Ottawa on July 9, 2021. (David Richard/Radio-Canada)

Commanda said the treaty relationship between Indigenous people and the Crown is important to preserve. She says she hopes King Charles will do more than previous monarchs to ensure the numbered treaties are honoured.

"Treaties are sacred," she said. "They're so sacred, and they are held in the most revered of ways."

But Commanda added part of that relationship involves acknowledging the harm caused by colonization.

In 2019, the Anglican Church of Canada apologized for spiritual harm inflicted on Indigenous people, but a sitting British monarch has yet to do so.

"A new relationship, or the right kind of relationship, has to be made," Commanda said. "Undo the harm of history, and let's create a new history."