Advancing reconciliation with Indigenous people will be a major test for King Charles III, prominent Canadian Anglicans say—with one bishop saying it could shape the influence of the monarchy for decades to come.
With the new King taking the throne after the release last year of data suggesting possible graves at a number of former residential school sites, Indigenous leaders have been vocal in their expectations for Charles to address what they say is Canada’s legacy of colonialism and subjugation of Indigenous peoples.
Roseanne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, urged the Crown to fulfill Call to Action No. 45 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which includes demands for the Government of Canada to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, the historical justification used by European monarchs to colonize Indigenous lands; and to issue a “Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation” reaffirming nation-to-nation relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Similar expectations have been voiced within the Anglican Church of Canada, which has longstanding historic and cultural ties to the monarchy. The monarch is Canada’s head of state and supreme governor of the Church of England. Though the Anglican Church of Canada is independent from the Church of England, the monarch holds the title “Defender of the Faith” in both Britain and Canada.
Bishop Chris Harper of the diocese of Saskatoon—who is Plains Cree and the first priest from Treaty 6 territory ordained as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada—says reconciliation presents an opportunity for King Charles III to “start to see where he can come together with the community and with the people themselves … How he handles it will I think determine the strength of the monarchy going ahead in decades.”
Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, believes Charles is attuned to the needs of the country’s Indigenous peoples.
“My understanding from those who have spoken with [Charles] or have recently engaged with him is that he has a great empathy for Indigenous issues in Canada,” the primate says.
“I look forward to seeing how that might play out in conversation, because there’s a unique and particular relationship between Indigenous people and the Crown. I don’t think any of us fully understand how that will unfold as we go forward, and so having a King who is curious and interested and wants to understand I think will be important.”
Canon Michael Jackson, president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada, a monarchist group, notes that ties between the monarch and Indigenous peoples of Canada long predate Confederation in 1867.
“An important aspect of the Crown in Canada has been that continuity since the earliest time,” Jackson says. “Since the end of the 16th century, one of the constants has been the relationship between the Crown and the Indigenous peoples and that was taken very seriously by the monarchs—by Queen Elizabeth, [and] by King Charles, who is showing a great interest in the issues of reconciliation in our own time.”
Jackson describes the Royal Proclamation of 1763 by King George III as the start of the Crown’s recognition of the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. The proclamation formally recognized Indigenous title, rights and freedoms for the first time, and is recognized in the Canadian Constitution of 1982.
“This tradition continues, so that the Indigenous nations feel they have a direct link to the sovereign,” he says. “Queen Elizabeth and King Charles have taken that very seriously.”
Ray Aldred, director of the Indigenous Studies program at the Vancouver School of Theology and a member of the Anglican Journal editorial board, says one motivation for the Royal Proclamation of 1763 might have been a desire to protect the land of Indigenous peoples from encroachments by settlers.
Generally, Aldred says, Indigenous peoples in Canada saw the treaties they made as being with the Crown, and sometimes saw the Crown as better disposed toward them than the elected Canadian government.
“On different occasions Indigenous people would petition the Crown because the Canadian government was not friendly to Indigenous people in Canada,” he says.
He cites Treaty 6, signed in Saskatchewan in the 1870s between the Crown and various First Nations.
“From the outset of Treaty 6 for example, it was thought that the Crown wanted to join in partnership with Indigenous people to heal the land,” Aldred says.
As a constitutional monarch, Charles has a “delicate role” in encouraging care for the people of a country while political will belongs to the government, Nicholls says. One of the ways she believes Charles can exert influence is through conversations with political leaders such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“While the King would have to be careful of partisan leadership, he certainly can express his concern for the well-being of Indigenous peoples and the history of our relationships and the need for consideration,” Nicholls says. “So I think there is a role… that needs to be nurtured and cared for and with an Indigenous Governor General [Mary Simon], I think there will be interesting conversations ahead.”
Bishop Riscylla Shaw, suffragan bishop for Trent-Durham in the diocese of Toronto, says she hopes and prays that Charles will support “processes around people’s need for self-determination.”
“I know that the whole notion of being a [former] colony of Britain is something that we’re wrestling with and struggling with, and that has come right to the fore with the change in monarch,” Shaw says.
Shaw, who is Métis, calls the change in monarch “a new day for reconciliation and relationship-building” and believes there are many ways Charles could express his commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“He could visit,” she says. “He could come and see us, come and recognize the people of the land, give us his time and his consciousness, his attention. He could work with the decolonizing processes and try and help people figure out what can that look like.”
Decolonization, for Shaw, means “re-humanizing us all, bringing us into the love of God and to the relationships that we are called to be in, right relationships.” In the case of Charles, she says, that involves recognizing and repudiating influences such as the Doctrine of Discovery, restoring “our relationships with one another and with the land—but not with necessarily ongoing domineering colonial powers.”
Some Indigenous leaders, including Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, have called on Charles not just to denounce but to actually repeal the doctrine. But at least one Indigenous scholar has argued that it does not apply in Canada. In an Aug. 5 Globe and Mail opinion piece, University of Toronto law professor Douglas Sanderson (Amo Binashii) wrote that the doctrine, established by a 1493 papal bull, had no legal standing until an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision which only applied in the United States.
In May, Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron said Queen Elizabeth II should apologize for Canada’s residential school system to help survivors and their families heal. Caron said residential school survivors told her an apology from the Queen, as leader of the Anglican Church and Canada’s head of state, would be important to them.
Canon Murray Still, co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, hopes King Charles III will make a statement on the residential schools.
“Before he was king, [Charles] did make a visit to Canada and heard from survivors of the residential schools, and I think the most recent discovery of children’s remains in Kamloops and elsewhere impacted him,” Still says.
“He is a world traveller, so he knows that colonization has impacted Indigenous people all around the globe… We place a lot of hope in the new King’s ability to perhaps make some kind of statement, though we have no control over that.”
Jackson believes Charles, like his mother a “convinced Christian”, will maintain a continuity in the approach of the monarch to the faith world. In other areas, he expects Charles to take a different approach.
“I think Charles will be a good king… He is 73, so he’s had ample time to prove himself,” Jackson says. “He’s had a very interesting career, wide experience and he has taken on causes which were not fashionable at the time. For example, he came to the defence of the environment and climate change when it was not fashionable, and he stuck with it and has been proven right in the long run.”
Jackson highlights Charles’s deep involvement in multicultural and multifaith relations, which he says inform the King’s interest in the Commonwealth.
“He’s also taken up other causes like urban architectural heritage, like the problems of unemployed youth in our cities, like the plight of armed forces veterans—what they do after leaving the forces,” Jackson says.
“I think that shows he has a perception and understanding of the issues.”