fter spending two days and a cramped night on a remote aboriginal reserve, the wife of the Queen’s youngest son pledged to rebuild bonds between the Royal Family and Canada’s aboriginal community.
“The First Nations have a unique relationship with the Royal Family, going back many years. This relationship has continued. Even today, our Queen is referred to as the Great White Mother and the enormous respect in which she is held by the people of the First Nations remains,” the Countess of Wessex said after her unusual northern Ontario visit.
“I hope that through my involvement with the proud aboriginal people of this land that the old bonds of our relationship are strengthened.”
Speaking at Nipissing University in North Bay, she directly addressed the challenges and failures of the place of First Nations in Canada and issued a plea for solutions, an unusual role for a visiting Royal.
It came with a dash of emotion — the Countess had just left Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, known as KI, an isolated fly-in only reserve of about 1,300 people, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
The reserve is so lacking in infrastructure, most of the delegation of high-profile women — who included Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, the province’s incoming lieutenant-governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Ruth Ann Onley, wife of Lieutenant-Governor David Onley, filmmaker Andrée Cazabon, who has worked to promote the needs of KI, and others — stayed in community homes.
Like many northern reserves, it has suffered from poor housing and inadequate education, high unemployment, and alcohol and drug abuse.
“The experience of the last 24 hours has been moving, enlightening and uplifting,” the Countess said.
“The people of KI took myself and our delegation into their community and their hearts and shared with us not only their wonderful hospitality and friendship but their stories, their knowledge of the beautiful lake on which they live and also the community issues.
“It is clear that many of these communities are in need of support separate from activities that are government led to allow them to prosper.”
She offered her help in bringing change.
“Canada is a great land of opportunity with a vibrant population, but much of that opportunity and the vibrancy it holds is beyond the reach the First Nations people.”
The Countess also spoke frankly of the sad legacy of residential schools.
“Many of the people who went through the residential school system have been left in a kind of limbo,” she said.
“They are still surrounded by their culture but feel they have no place within it and are haunted by the experiences of a desperately unhappy past. Many of them are living with painful memories, which make living day to day extremely difficult, displaying behaviours not unlike those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
“We need to ask what can be done to relieve their suffering so that they do not follow many of their sisters and brothers into alcoholism, depression or suicide.”
The premier told Nipissing students and staff, and aboriginal community members the KI visit gave her another chance to experience the “joys and the challenges” of life on a remote reserve.
“The impressions and memories … will inspire me and motivate me,” she said.
“All of the mandate letters of my ministers will come out within the next week or so and it will be very clear that my expectations, across government, to make sure that we work in this context to improve our relationships, that that is part of the mandate of this government.
Being on a reserve with a member of the Royal Family was a special reminder of the importance of the treaty between First Nations and government, Ms. Wynne said.
“In 2014, to take it to another level, we need better and more progress on sharing resources, one education, on land-use planning, on housing, on water — and the list goes on. We need to move into a better relationship on all those fronts.”
The KI reserve is on the edge of Big Trout Lake and is closer to the Nunavut border than to Toronto or Ottawa. It is only accessible by air, except from January to March, when temporary winter roads are built over frozen lakes and rivers to allow heavy supplies to be brought in.
Two small planes flew the delegation and a security detail in on Thursday. The Countess and other VIPs met the elders in a traditional teepee, shared in a communal feast of fresh-caught wild game and fish and were served a traditional field breakfast by members of the Canadian Rangers, a military reserve unit largely composed of aboriginals living in the north. They also toured the community’s facilities, particularly its overcrowded and under-resourced school.
Accommodation was so tight the Canadian Rangers, there to organize the ceremonial guards, slept on the floor of a church.
“It’s about reconciliation and gaining a better understanding of each other,” said KI’s deputy chief, Darryl Sainnawap.
“What better way than to have people come live in our homes, to share our strength, our challenges and our history and just teach them about who we are.”