Stó:lō Tribal Chief Tyrone McNeil said he respects the life of work performed by Queen Elizabeth II. He just wishes Canada didn’t have a monarch in the first place.
“She is somebody who put in 70 years of duty in a leadership role, and that’s significant,” he told The Current. (McNeil himself has put in more than two decades of leadership among Indigenous organizations.) “Whether you like the Queen or the institution, that resonates with us that anybody can serve that long in that capacity, and served right up to literally the day before she died. So that duty of service resonates.”
But little else resonates for McNeil, given the monarchy’s legacy in Canada and its colonial ties and history. McNeil thinks the new King has an opportunity to address some of that past.
Family and personal memories
There is a generation divide, McNeil said, between many older people in Stó:lō communities and those who are younger. Those younger residents tend to look at the monarchy less fondly—especially given its ties to colonialism.
“It goes from anger and frustration over things like that to disinterest,” he said.
“The older generation seems to be connected and relating to the Queen and feeling a lot of sympathy. I see pictures on Facebook of some of our citizens as young children when she visited, as early as the 1950s.”
McNeil’s own family can point to one such link.
In 1951, when then-Princess Elizabeth was set to stop in Hope, it was decided the person to first meet the soon-to-be Queen would be the local resident with the longest personal history in the area. That person happened to be McNeil’s maternal grandmother.
“When the Queen rolled into town, my mom’s mom was front and centre there, ready to greet her,” he said. The original plan was for a tea with the Princess, but the stop was abbreviated, McNeil said, and Elizabeth rolled away after an exchange of flowers and a medal.
That little piece of family history hasn’t left McNeil feeling a deep connection to the Queen or the monarchy himself.
“My life goes on,” he said of the Queen’s death last Thursday, prior to the National Day of Mourning. “I’ll be working on Monday. There’s too much work to take a day off. The world continues to revolve. The sun’s going to come out tomorrow morning.”
Monarchy as an institution
McNeil has stronger feelings about the institution of the monarchy and its role (or lack thereof) in the lives of Canadians and Indigenous people.
When the British began to govern North America and those who lived there, the monarch assumed responsibility for their subjects. He said those monarchs, and the officials appointed to represent them, “didn’t do a very good job looking after us, allowing residential schools to be entrenched for too many generations.”
“When our early leaders were trying to resolve the land question, we’d send delegations to England, to their Parliament, and were turned away each time.”
McNeil said the new King has an opportunity to try to repair the relationship.
While the monarch’s institutional powers are extremely limited, the King or Queen has a large public megaphone that can make a difference. And McNeil, along with other BC Indigenous leaders, say Charles should take a lead and renounce the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine was used by European countries to take possession of North American lands.
“Even now, in 2022 here, a lot of the Parliamentary system, a lot of the legal system, doesn’t see us as human beings. We’re wards of the Queen—now King, I guess—or wards to the state,” he said. “So if the monarchy really does want to grow into 2022, embrace the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, start correcting some of those errors of the past, and recognize us as human beings as having rights and treat us as such.
“The monarchy has an opportunity to be relevant to us, or not to be. It’s really up to them,” he continued. “On the one hand, if they denounce that doctrine, I think that would be helpful. Beyond that, I’m not sure how the monarchy can actually benefit us in a significant way.”
McNeil added that the concept of a monarchy is itself an imposition and antithetical to how Stó:lō government was conducted before Europeans arrived.
“When England was doing this colonialism, reaching out across the globe, colonizing and taking over, one of the more significant impacts it had on us is [that] traditionally we would have had the people at the forefront and centre of our minds in that leadership capacity. The leadership was shared among us. There was no one King or Queen in our world.
“And one thing that the monarchy and the church did was to move us from that whole-of-society approach, which we operated on for thousands of years, to a pyramid,” he said. “On the top of the pyramid you have a Queen or King or a Pope, whereas traditionally our pyramid is more upside down: the people were above us as leaders, that community was above us. The nation, our neighbours, were all above us.”
McNeil would like Canada to take hold of its own destiny and governance structure. He sees the country’s reaction to the Queen’s death as part of an unsettling connection to a past that is no longer relevant.
“I certainly see [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] is close to the Queen, having visited her at a young age when his dad was Prime Minister, but get with it,” he said. “Let’s behave like a nation as opposed to a colonized country, looking up to somebody not even from this country and disconnected from the realities of not only us as First Nations, but as Canadian citizens writ large. Let’s mature as a country beyond that.”