Why was it so important to chiefs and other representatives of First Nations to insist on the Governor General’s presence in meetings with Prime Minister Stephen Harper?
Part of the answer is simple: The Governor General represents “Her Majesty the Queen,” four words (except for the years when it was “His Majesty”) that have been, and still are, an integral part of the traditional relationship between the government of Canada and the peoples who were here first.
Picture a huge ceremonial teepee on the Frog Lake Indian Reserve east of Edmonton on a hot day in the summer of 1973. An Indian agent (later renamed “local government adviser”) sits at a large table between an RCMP officer in red serge and the chief of the band council in traditional headdress and clothing. Eligible Frog Lake Reserve residents stand in a mostly single-file line stretching from the table to far outside the teepee.
The agent hands a $5 bill (more if a family is involved) to the officer, who in turn hands it to the eligible Frog Lake residents in the name of Her Majesty the Queen, pursuant to Treaty 6.
I was that Indian agent. To this day, I am moved by how the First Nations peoples still hold so much reverence and respect for the monarchy. Five dollars was worth a lot more when Treaty 6 was first signed in 1876, yet the yearly exercise of receiving it from “Her Majesty” can be inherently of far greater value to the recipients.
I was frustrated listening to interviewers on two of the national TV stations sounding so perplexed about why the First Nations representatives wanted the Governor General at the meetings. Some of the interviewers’ questions seemed to imply it was merely tactics and strategy to upstage the prime minister’s office.
Tactics and strategy are important and, no doubt, there are some who do desire to upstage Harper. But it is my view that most of the First Nations leaders simply wanted to first respectfully negotiate where, when and for how long the meetings are to take place.
It’s standard operating procedure between nations, between management and labour, and between many other entities, small and large.
The Governor General, though the Queen reigns but no longer rules, is still an important symbol of how things worked in the past. Let us hope his presence, albeit only on a ceremonial basis, will ensure a high level of dignity, sincerity and respect.
The prime minister needs to get his act together now with respect to issues of crucial importance, not only to the First Nations peoples but to all the aboriginal peoples in Canada. He isn’t the only one who knows how to use social media in a powerful way. The Idle No More movement and Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike are but harbingers of things to come, if he doesn’t show respect to those on the other side of the table.
Paying serious attention to tradition, time and place would be a good start in the right direction.
Dave Byron of North Saanich is a former Canada and Alberta civil servant who served status and non-status First Nations and Métis peoples.
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