Grand Chief Stewart Phillip declined an invitation to take part in a reconciliation ceremony with Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, at a reception at Government House Monday.
“The question was: In the face of what is happening on the ground, is it appropriate to take part in a grandiose ceremony that serves to create the illusion everything is well in First Nations communities?” said Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
He consulted with fellow chiefs last week at what he described as a series of intense general assembly meetings. “The answer was no.”
Phillip said indigenous communities in Canada face crushing poverty as an everyday reality, “the missing and murdered women, the astounding number of children in [government] care, the rate of child apprehension and sub-standard housing. Every year First Nations people perish in house fires,” he said. “There is a heart-breaking tragic dimension here.”
Phillip said he was asked to be part of the Black Rod ceremony. The black rod is a ceremonial staff made in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year. It is housed in the B.C. parliament buildings and used on formal occasions for the monarchy. The rod has First Nations engravings and three rings for the monarchy and two levels of government.
Phillip was to hand a symbolic fourth ring of aboriginal reconciliation to Prince William and invite him to affix it on the black rod. Heritage Canada said First Nations have requested the fourth ring since the rod was created.
“These events are tightly scripted. There is no speaking,” Phillip said. “Had I been accorded the opportunity to speak to and express a different view things might be different. But that wouldn’t serve the illusion of peace and harmony.”
The chiefs brought up several issues that are deteriorating relations with provincial and federal governments.
Robert Chamberlin, chief of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation north of Port Hardy, noted Premier Christy Clark’s “fast-track” of the Site C hydroelectric dam in the Peace River without aboriginal consultation and the federal government’s interference with Nuu-chah-nulth fishing rights on Vancouver Island.
Last week, hereditary chiefs in the area said Trudeau was no longer welcome. This came not long after he spent a holiday in Tofino with his family and took part in a Tla-o-qui-aht parade, wearing war paint and riding in a canoe.
Phillip said he was particularly disappointed in Trudeau’s government for defying two legal orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to improve the welfare of children on reserves.
“They must move beyond lip service and take action,” Phillip said.
Monday’s Government House reception, hosted by Premier Christy Clark and Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon, included about 300 VIP guests, including former lieutenant governor Steven Point, also a former First Nations chief.
Guests came face-to-face with a symbol of reconciliation — the Witness Blanket, made up of hundreds of artifacts and photos from residential schools across the country.
Artist Carey Newman told the Times Colonist at the installation last week that he hoped to speak to the royal couple about the dark chapter in Canada’s colonial history and what reconciliation means.
Newman said he hoped international media took interest in indigenous issues — which has happened. Newman’s father, a residential school survivor, was interviewed by the BBC about his experiences. Phillip said he had a call from the Guardian newspaper in England about why he was declining to meet the royal couple.
Phillip said he supports Newman’s Witness Blanket being part of Monday’s reception and respects other First Nations leaders who took part.
The duke and duchess were in Bella Bella and Heiltsuk territory Monday.
Bad weather cancelled the royal couple’s seaplane tour of the Great Bear Rainforest, but the rest of their tour continued as scheduled.