When Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, arrive in Canada on Tuesday to kick off a royal tour in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s seven decades on the throne, they’ll find themselves confronting the painful and enduring legacies of British colonization and empire.
The pair, who begin their three-day tour in Newfoundland and Labrador, will take part in what their itinerary describes as a “solemn moment of reflection and prayer” at a Heart Garden, planted in memory of the thousands of Indigenous children who died at residential schools and to honor survivors and their families.
Canada is grappling with the discovery over the past year of evidence of unmarked graves on or near the sites of the government-funded, church-run schools. Beginning in the 19th century, Indigenous children in many instances were taken forcefully from their families to be assimilated in boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages or practice their culture. The last residential school closed in the 1990s. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2015 that the system amounted to “cultural genocide.”
Charles and Camilla’s itinerary, which will also take them to Ottawa and the Northwest Territories, includes a prayer in Inuktitut, Mi’kmaq music, a feeding the fire ceremony and visits to Indigenous communities to learn about efforts to preserve their languages, in addition to more standard royal tour fare, such as ceremonies at the National War Memorial in the capital.
“There are moments in this tour that are traditional,” said royal historian Carolyn Harris, an instructor at the University of Toronto. “But when we look at the itinerary, we see it’s very topical … and filled with events that are going to be relevant in the 2020s.”
Clarence House has said the tour will “highlight an emphasis on learning from Indigenous peoples.” But in a country where demonstrators against the mistreatment of Indigenous people have in recent years toppled statues of British monarchs — including of Elizabeth and her great great grandmother, Queen Victoria — some want more than listening.
“It was the whole colonial power structure that was responsible for the residential school system,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. “I think they should definitely apologize.”
Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said the Anglican Church ran early residential schools while Canada was a British colony. If she meets Charles at an engagement she’s attending in Ottawa, she plans to tell him that the queen, who is head of the Church of England, the mother church of Anglicanism worldwide, should listen to survivors and acknowledge the harm done to them.
“The queen definitely has a role to play in reconciliation,” Caron said. “If it starts with an apology, that’s wonderful.”
The visit comes at a complicated time for the royal family, with Elizabeth, 96, in the twilight of her reign and several royal headaches — foreign and domestic — threatening to cast a shadow over the celebrations to mark her platinum jubilee.
Prince Harry, who stepped back from royal duties last year, plans to release an “intimate” memoir this year. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the queen’s grandson and his biracial wife, Meghan, said an unnamed member of the royal family had asked questions about their unborn child’s skin color.
In November, Barbados became the first commonwealth realm in nearly three decades to ditch the queen as its head of state and declare itself a republic, providing potential inspiration to the 15 remaining realms, particularly those in the Caribbean, amid a broader reckoning over colonialism spurred in part by the Black Lives Matter movement.Elizabeth’s second son, Prince Andrew, settled a sexual abuse lawsuit in February that was brought by a woman who alleges she was trafficked to him by financier Jeffrey Epstein and forced to him sex with him, including two decades ago, when she was 17.
During at-times rocky royal tours to the Caribbean this year, family members faced calls for apologies and reparations for the slave trade, and photos of the royals echoed an imperial past in what critics said was cringeworthy and out of touch.
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told Prince William, the queen’s grandson, and his wife, Catherine, in March that the island nation would at some point be “moving on.” Their tour drew protests at several stops; a planned visit to a cocoa farm in Belize was scuttled amid local opposition.
When Prince Edward, the queen’s third son, and his wife, Sophie, visited Antigua and Barbuda in April, the country’s prime minister told them that it aspires “at some point to become a republic” — even if it’s “not in the cards” right now. The pair “postponed” a visit to Grenada, citing advice from local officials.
The visits have raised questions about the monarchy’s place in the commonwealth and about whether royal tours still make sense or should be reimagined.
Harris said Canada has generally been a “friendly” destination for royals. But while the queen still commands respect in the country, even among non-monarchists, Charles, her first son and heir to the throne, is less popular. He no longer draws the large crowds that greeted him and Princess Diana in the 1980s.
Polls here show declining support for the country remaining a constitutional monarchy, particularly under the reign of Charles as a king. But severing those ties would be a complex process, requiring a constitutional amendment backed by both houses of Parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures.
“It seems unlikely that a politician would choose to stake their career on the issue of reopening the constitution to transition from a monarchy to a republic,” Harris said. “What’s more likely over the course of the 21st century is that we simply have less visibility for the royal family.”
Such a move could also require reworking or reopening treaties between the Crown and Indigenous people.
The royals have met with Indigenous leaders here during their many visits to Canada.
In 1970, during a 10-day tour, an Indigenous leader welcomed Elizabeth by noting that in the century since his forefathers signed treaties with Queen Victoria, “the promises of peace and harmony, of social advancement and equality of opportunity, have not been realized by our people.”
“We are hopeful that Your Majesty’s representatives will now … recognize the inequities of the past and take steps to redress the treatment of the Indian people of Manitoba,” said David Courchene of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood.
During a royal visit in 2017 to mark the sesquicentennial of Canadian confederation, Charles and Camilla drew criticism for bursting into laughter during a performance by Inuit throat singers in Iqaluit.
Large crowds greeted William and Kate during their Canadian tour in 2016 — billed as one that would “help celebrate Canada’s First Nations communities.” But several prominent Indigenous leaders snubbed invitations to a reconciliation ceremony in Victoria, British Columbia — a provincial capital named after the British monarch.
Phillip, the grand chief, was among them. He said such tours tend to “whitewash the brutality of the colonial experience with Indigenous people.”
“In my view, these are just grandiose photo ops,” he said. “They’re trying to make themselves look good, and there’s no substance to the statements they make. There’s no effort to make it right.”