By Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press
Dave (Sabe) Courchene remembers first hearing in his early teens the story of how his grandfather met the Queen during her 10-day tour of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories in 1970.
It was his father and uncles who would explain how the meeting came to be and the risk his grandfather, David Courchene Sr., took when it came time to address her.
Courchene Sr. was there on behalf of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood he co-founded in the 1960s. The younger Courchene said his grandfather presented his written speech to the event’s organizers, but was told he couldn’t read it.
“There were some things in there that, I guess, they didn’t want the Queen to hear,” said Courchene. “It upset him. There was no way they were going to change what he had to say, so he went ahead and presented what he had written.”
Courchene spoke about how he felt treaties were not being honoured in the way they were meant to be when the first one was signed in 1871, his grandson said.
He added that his grandfather spoke out, not to protest the Queen’s visit, but to engage in respectful dialogue about past and present mistreatment Indigenous Peoples faced.
Courchene said hearing the story instilled a sense of pride in him. “He was standing up for something that was an injustice, the way the Indigenous people were being treated. He stood up (and) he gave that voice.”
A CBC article published in 2020 about that 1970 visit said the Queen told Courchene she appreciated his words and recognized the destructive role colonization played and continues to play.
This year marks the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The 95-year-old has been on the throne for 70 years and is the world’s longest-serving monarch.
Nearly 25 years after Courchene gave his speech, the Queen would hear a similar one.
Bill Erasmus, a former Dene national chief, voiced his frustrations during her visit to Yellowknife in 1994. He said the federal government hadn’t honoured treaties signed by previous monarchs and that had “tarnished” the Indigenous relationship with the Crown.
“Our treaties are directly with the First Nations and the British Crown, and so it was very important for us to reconnect and to remind the Crown of the original provisions, the obligations, the promises and the spirit and intent behind the original treaties,” Erasmus said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
He suggested the meeting was significant because it helped educate Canadians.
Eric J. Large, former chief of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, was at the 1994 visit to represent the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations.
“We were seeking the Queen’s reaffirmation of and commitment to the continuation of Treaty 6 into the future of our descendants,” he said by phone from his home in Saddle Lake, Alta.
Large said the community received confirmation the following year of a letter he had presented to the Queen. Her office said further discussions would have to be between the First Nation and Canada’s ministers.
The relationship between First Nations and the Crown shifted to Canada when the country patriated its Constitution in 1982, but many agree there is still a strong connection between First Peoples and the Queen.
“First Nations people … still maintain that direct relationship to her and whom she represents through that initial treaty relationship,” said Loretta Ross, treaty commissioner for Manitoba.
That relationship was tested last year when a statue of the Queen and another of Queen Victoria were toppled on Canada Day in Winnipeg. It was shortly after the discovery of possible child graves at former residential school sites.
Ross said it’s all part of reconciliation.
“Part of that is frustration, wanting to see things change, and statues of people that represent what it was supposed to be are easy targets to take your frustrations out on.”
Part of reconciliation includes understanding the original spirit and intent of the treaties, said Erasmus, as well as both sides coming to the table.
“There is a long way to go, but the only way you can get there is by dialogue.”
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship