Royal visit a reminder of B.C.’s colonial past – and present

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are greeted by Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Victoria. | Photo courtesy of the Province of B.C

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are greeted by Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Victoria. | Photo courtesy of the Province of B.C

This week’s much-hyped B.C. visit of British royals William and Kate was a reminder of just how thoroughly our province was, and is, a colonial project.

Even with a name like British Columbia, and the union jack on our provincial flag, some of us seem to forget where this recent political entity came from, and that its creation dispossessed many of the original peoples who had lived here for thousands and thousands of years.

Although everybody likes to snap photos of a rich, famous, good-looking young couple and their children, the legitimacy and popular hold of the monarchy isn’t what it used to be. And here in this far flung outpost of the old Empire, there is a resurgence of Indigenous movements and a renewed confidence amongst the many nations asserting their right to determine, or at least have a big say in, what happens on their land.

The royal visit to B.C., if one looks carefully, is a fascinating study in how our elites seek to keep up with the times, while still managing to stay on top despite the contradictions.

It would be easy, and indeed it is tempting, to go off about the absurdity of all the attention showered on this anachronistic, decadent institution. But it’s more enlightening to look at all the ways the future King of England has to bend to the hard won progress made against the social class his family represents. Their itinerary in British Columbia looks designed to cater to the sensibilities of a progressive, environmentally-conscious public – especially the younger generations for whom the British monarchy is an increasingly irrelevant institution.

William may be in line to inherit the throne, but the future King needs us a lot more than we need him. So an anti-monarchy rant is a bit redundant. It’s a dying institution that can only survive if it bends to the historic progress that’s been made in spite of it.

Viewed in this light, it’s important that the royals’ schedule has been full of acknowledgement and interaction with the original inhabitants of this land, most of which was never ceded to the British Crown through treaty.

William, the Duke of Cambridge, opened his remarks at their arrival reception Sat., Sept. 24 on the lawn of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria by acknowledging the territories of the Songhees and the Esquimalt First Nations. (Though the real highlight of the afternoon was an apparently sincere query from a member of the royals’ UK press corps, about Premier Christy Clark, “Who is the lady in red who got booed?”)

Later that evening, the royal couple was honoured at Government House, where, as reported in the Guardian, a 12-metre long art installation showcasing the legacy of “cultural genocide” of the Indian Residential Schools in B.C. awaited them. The infamous facilities, for which the Canadian government has officially apologized, were a central part of the colonial effort to “kill the Indian in the child” and eliminate Indigenous culture and resistance to the settler-colonial project.

On Sunday, William and Kate visited the Sheway pregnancy outreach centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where the majority of clients are Indigenous women. There, the royals participated in an Indigenous welcome and prayer ceremony. Later, they participated in meetings on mental health services focused on Indigenous communities, and even found time to visit recently-arrived families of Syrian refugees in Vancouver. And now they’re off to visit the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.’s central coast, where they will be officially greeted by the Heiltsuk First Nation.

The danger in all this, of course, is that the colonial past is being acknowledged only to better deny the colonial present. The Great Bear Rainforest, and really the entire Pacific coast of our province, we can’t forget, is under a real and present threat from tar sands and LNG pipeline and tanker projects. All the apologies and hand-wringing over historic crimes should not be used to obscure the present day fossil fuel juggernaut that often seeks to plough right through Indigenous opposition.

When it comes to the proposed Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has been very clear that they view the Texas-based multinational’s bitumen export project as an affront to their Indigenous rights to their historic lands and waters.

Fortunately, on Sunday afternoon, some determined activists managed to show up with a timely reminder at Vancouver’s Vanier Park, where Prime Minister Trudeau was hosting William and Kate. On the shores of English Bay, these activists brought a simple message for the Crown and the Trudeau government alike: “B.C. says no to Kinder Morgan.”