By David P. Ball, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Windspeaker.com
Buckingham Palace won’t be acting on a letter from Treaty Six chiefs to intervene in the selection of the Queen’s next stand-in to Canada, the Governor General.
On Jan. 27, the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations wrote Queen Elizabeth II directly, expressing concern after the monarch’s representative — former astronaut Julie Payette — resigned six days earlier after a bombshell investigation found she presided over a “toxic” and abusive workplace.
“Thanks for the enquiry,” the Queen’s own communications secretary Donal McCabe told Windspeaker.com in an email, “but this is a matter for the Canadian Government.”
Payette’s unprecedented resignation — the first time in Canada’s history, in fact — led to her temporary replacement by Richard Wagner, the Supreme Court of Canada’s Chief Justice.
That sparked concern from some Indigenous leaders, notably the Confederacy of Treaty Six Chiefs, which wrote to the Queen asking her to encourage Canada to consult Treaty nations before appointing a new Governor General.
“The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada as a ‘stand in’ does not give us comfort,” the letter, addressed to “Her Majesty, The Queen,” stated. “Many times, our Nations have been involved in litigation that ends up at the Supreme Court.
“For us, we would like to see a new Governor General appointed as soon as possible. We have one request: Treaty Peoples need to be involved in the process. We are partners with the Crown.”
The Queen’s Privy Council — the government advisory body which oversees the federal civil service and advises on constitutional matters — told Windspeaker.com there is no conflict between the interim appointee’s two roles.
The Chief Justice’s and Governor General’s “roles remain distinct and he retains complete independence in the exercise of his judicial functions,” according to spokesperson Béatrice Fénelon in an email.
“Even when the office of Governor General is not vacant,” Fénelon added, “Justices of the Supreme Court are called upon from time to time to exercise functions as Deputies of the Governor General, and do so without compromising their judicial independence.”
The role of Governor General is largely ceremonial, but considered essential to Canada’s system of “responsible government” in which the Queen’s representative must generally follow the constitutional advice of federal Cabinet ministers — themselves elected members of the House of Commons and responsible to their elected peers.
According to a 1947 proclamation by late King George VI, the Governor General became the Crown’s representative in Canada and the country’s military commander-in-chief — but the British monarch would remain the official head of state. And the role required acting “with the advice” of the Privy Council.
The King’s letters patent also stipulated that, in the event a Governor General died or could not otherwise perform the ceremonial role, they would be replaced temporarily by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
“In the event of the death, incapacity, removal, or absence of Our Governor General out of Canada,” the King wrote, “all and every the powers and authorities herein granted to him shall, until Our further pleasure is signified therein, be vested in Our Chief Justice for the time being of Canada.”
Other prominent Indigenous leaders have since weighed in on who should replace Payette in the role.
“It is time that Canada has its first Indigenous governor general,” the Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde told The Canadian Press on Jan. 28.
“I’ve always said that we need to get First Nations people into the highest levels of decision-making authority, power and influence and the governor general, to me, is one of the highest.”
Such a move was echoed by Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan in a statement.
“When the newcomers came to these lands all those years ago, the first relationship the Queen’s subjects formed was with First Nations,” FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said in a press release. “As the representative of the Crown, it is important that we use this opportunity to honour the history of that relationship.”
However, not everyone agreed with the sentiment. Anishinaabe journalist and Seven Fallen Feathers author Tanya Talaga countered on Twitter that simply appointing an Indigenous person to the role would not truly address the root causes of colonialism and inequality in the country today.
“An Indigenous governor-general wouldn’t mean reconciliation,” she tweeted on Jan. 28. “It would mean nothing.
“How could an Indigenous person represent the Crown when we still fight for basic human rights? Including respecting the treaties — the laws of this land.”
And Stó:lō writer Lee Maracle, author of Ravensong and My Conversations with Canadians, tweeted on Jan. 29: “If an Indigenous person was Governor General, then they would be colonizing us with our own bodies.”
Métis artist Christi Belcourt – who herself was awarded the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Innovation by Payette’s predecessor, David Johnston — was equally unenthused about the notion.
“An Indigenous Governor General would have about the same power to change anything as the Minister of Justice had,” Belcourt tweeted Jan. 23. “They would essentially be administering the colonial system without any power to change anything. What would be the point?”
For Rob Houle, who has worked on research projects with the Yellowhead Institute think tank, the role of monarch’s representative remains important for Treaty nations who signed agreements with the Crown.
“The Governor General is a representative of the Crown, who was supposed to bring Treaty partners concerns to the Crown,” tweeted Houle, a member of Wapsewsipi First Nation in Alberta, on Jan. 22. “Does this person need to be Indigenous, probably not. They represent the Crown, not Indigenous People.”
According to the letter from the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, signed by Grand Chief Vernon Watchmaker and Beaver Lake Cree Nation Chief Germaine Anderson, the last three people in the Governor General role “have not engaged” Treaty Six members despite their attempts. (Grand Chief Watchmaker did not respond to requests for an interview).
“We want to see the relationship repaired and built,” the letter concluded. “When the representative of Queen Victoria approached our Peoples to enter into a Peace and Friendship Treaty, our ancestors agreed in peace and friendship.
“We continue to hold these treaties as sacred undertakings.”