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OPINION: At Indian Day School, God Save the Queen rang hollow

'The Queen never heard my voice when I sang to her as a child. She never heard my voice as an adult when I was a chief,' laments local elder
Queen Elizabeth II died on Friday. For Indigenous peoples, the death and the monarchy itself stirs up some difficult emotions and memories.

I have this childhood memory of standing before class started and having to sing God Save the Queen at Indian Day School while looking out the window at our impoverished First Nation community. I must have been in Grade 3 because we were in a small one-room school building that was known as the Little School.

It sheltered Indigenous kids from grades kindergarten through Grade 3 before we went across the gravel road to the Big School for grades 4 to 6. This little school building was our indoctrination to enter into a world of forced assimilation — a process put into place by the British Crown long before I was ever born.

At the centre of the wall above the teacher’s desk and blackboard was a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Our Queen, we were told. And so we stood and faced her each morning and sang to her picture. God Save the Queen. But she wasn’t the one who needed saving.

I was old enough to recognize that the gulf of economic disparity between her world and ours was wider than the ocean that separated us.

By this point I was reading books and perusing encyclopedias that showed a world of which I knew nothing. Bathrooms, running water in the home, television, buses, trains and planes. And, of course, a Queen. I had not seen any of those in person. I was still too young to know that she, as the head of state to colonies such as Canada, was having a huge negative impact on my life. Even as I stood to sing to her each morning.

Long before the Queen and I were ever born, the groundwork for our lives was laid down by the monarchy. In the new world, the British North America Act (BNA) of 1867 created the Dominion of Canada and sought to dissolve Indigenous people into this newly created British colony.

The BNA received Royal Assent in March of that year. Nine years later, in 1876, the Indian Act received Royal Assent and was enacted as the law of the land in the new world, which was the world of the Indigenous Nations. The ancient world, to us.

The process of assimilation and indoctrination went into full swing with the creation of Indian Reserves, residential schools, Indian band councils, and the elimination of the hereditary systems of Indigenous governance.

Through the imposition of the Indian Act, it was hoped that Indigenous nationhood would be but a memory within a generation as the British Crown gave royal assent to beating the Indian out of the child.

This is the new world that the Queen inherited. This is the world that I was born into. This was why I was to stand and sing to her each morning.

The Queen had the power to change my world at will through royal assent under the Indian Act. The Indian Act was created out of the Crown’s experiences with Indigenous Nations but it was arbitrary and did not involve us in its creation.

Even today, we still lack that involvement. Not that we would have wanted an Indian Act. We were fine without it.

Without the Indian Act, Indigenous Nations enjoyed clean drinking water, a home for every family, a good life on the land where we were able to sustain ourselves. We enjoyed trade with other nations. During the fur trade we were a part of the world economy as we traded with the early European explorers.

The Indian Act and the decisions upheld by the Queen took all of that away. Our lives were made difficult. Our experience with the monarchy was very different. It wasn’t the same life that her subjects in the dominion of Canada enjoyed. The relationship was mostly adversarial.

Although we had agreements on how we were to live together on this land — called treaties — the Crown deliberately sought to overlook those arrangements and bury them inside the swirl of assimilation they were hoping to create by dissolving Indigenous Nations into the Dominion of Canada.

But the treaties are something we were involved in creating. The treaties contain our rights as a people. Through the Indian Act, assimilation, and residential schools, the Crown hoped that the treaties would be forgotten.

Treaties are by definition, government to government arrangements. Treaties contain the basis for a mutually agreed relationship that is to go on as long as the sun shines, as long as the waters flow, and as long as the grass shall grow.

And, treaties received royal assent through the British Crown.

Of course, I knew none of this as a child singing to the Queen each morning. I learned it later from my elders and from my fellow Chiefs when I would go to Ottawa as a chief to continue the fight for our existence.

By then the Queen had changed my life once more. All the powers of the Crown were transferred to the Dominion of Canada in 1982 under Canada’s newly minted constitution. That meant that all responsibility of the Crown including treaties and the Indian Act were now solely Canada’s. Royal assent was now achieved through an act in Parliament driven by the will of the people of Canada.

Canadians have the authority to make the government of Canada live up to their treaty obligations and restore life and dignity to the Indigenous Nations. You need only tell your government to do so.

The Queen never heard my voice when I sang to her as a child. She never heard my voice as an adult when I was a chief.

Perhaps Canadians can hear my voice and make positive change in a world without the Queen.

Jeff Monague is a former Chief of the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, former Treaty Research Director with the Anishnabek (Union of Ontario Indians), and veteran of the Canadian Forces. Monague, who taught the Ojibwe language with the Simcoe County District School Board and Georgian College, is currently the Superintendent of Springwater Provincial Park. His column appears every other Monday.