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Prince Charles and Camilla wrap tour in Yellowknife, but calls for reconciliation continue

YELLOWKNIFE — The Dene drum dance features the rhythmic pounding of caribou hide drums, singing, and dancers moving in a clockwise circle following the sun.
Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall arrive in Ottawa as part of a three-day Canadian tour on May 17. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

YELLOWKNIFE — The Dene drum dance features the rhythmic pounding of caribou hide drums, singing, and dancers moving in a clockwise circle following the sun.

In the 220-person Northwest Territories community of Dettah on Thursday, the drum dance also featured a prince, wearing a formal grey suit accessorized with a pocket handkerchief, smiling and pointing as he shuffled to the beat between two Dene chiefs.

The themes of Indigenous reconciliation and climate change were front and centre during the whirlwind visit by Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

The couple departed Canada Thursday night after a three-day tour that began in St. John’s, N.L., with a moment of reflection on residential school deaths and ended in the North, where Charles met with First Nations chiefs to discuss Indigenous-led solutions to climate change.

Charles, in his final speech of the tour, directly acknowledged the suffering of residential school survivors — but he stopped short of issuing the apology some Indigenous leaders have called for.

“On behalf of my wife and myself, I want to acknowledge their suffering and to say how much our hearts go out to them and their families,” he said of the survivors, stressing the need to listen to Indigenous Peoples and work to better understand their pain.

It wasn’t enough for Indigenous author and community organizer Lynda Gray, who said there was plenty of listening and reflecting instead of concrete action. Gray, a member of the Tsimshian First Nation, on the northwest coast of British Columbia, said the tour amounts to “just another PR event.”

Royal historian and author Carolyn Harris said the Platinum Jubilee visit was unlikely to produce a formal apology to Indigenous Peoples because the royals generally refrain from wading anywhere near politics.

Instead, Harris said, the couple displayed the Royals’ traditional approach to controversy — “commemorations of various kinds, acknowledging past wrongs, rather than a formal apology.”

Leaders with the Assembly of First Nations and the Métis National Council had requested an apology from the Queen as head of the Church of England.

Gray says there are many meaningful things the monarchy could do immediately to show sincere desire to address past wrongs, even without an apology.

“They have documents in their possession about the treaties — the true intent of the treaties — (as well as) about residential schools, at least the Anglican Church does,” said Gray, reached in Victoria while on tour with a new edition of her book, “First Nations 101.”

At stops in Yellowknife and Dettah, however, Charles was warmly received by people he met. Several of them remembered him from previous visits to the North, including a woman who had opened the door for him when he came in 1979, and an 89-year-old woman who once made a caribou hide jacket for the Queen.

Eileen Drygeese, 53, said her parents and grandparents told her stories of meeting the Royals on previous tours. She said she was shaking with emotion when she got to see Charles in person and give a medicine necklace to Camilla as a symbol of a “nation-to-nation” relationship.

“It symbolizes a lot for me, personally, and my people,” she said.

During speeches in Ottawa and Yellowknife, Charles urged leaders to fight climate change and to work with Indigenous people to do so.

On Thursday, he walked along the partially melted shores of Great Slave Lake for an event highlighting the impacts of climate change on the Dettah Ice Road, alongside Dahti Tsetso, the deputy director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

In an interview on Friday, Tsetso said the question of a royal apology is important and complex.

“(There are) a lot of considerations around it and I think it’s really important for Indigenous leaders and communities to come together and explore what that means,” Tsetso said.

However, she said she was struck by how engaged Charles appeared to be on the issue of climate change, and how open he was to her group’s message advocating for Indigenous-led approaches to conservation.

“For me, the opportunity to really shed a big light on the work was what so excited me about the opportunity to present yesterday,” Tsetso said.

The visit also came at a pivotal time for the Royal Family, as Charles takes over a greater share of royal duties from the 96-year-old Queen ahead of his eventual coronation as King.

During his visit, Charles met with displaced Ukrainian families, new Canadians and Afghan refugees, while Camilla attended child-literacy events and visited a transitional housing centre, which is a temporary shelter for people moving from homelessness to permanent housing.

The couple also showed off their lighter side with photo-op style events that included pouring pints in Newfoundland and Labrador, wading through crowds at Ottawa’s ByWard Market, and Charles climbing on a snowmobile in Yellowknife.

While a recent tour of the Caribbean by Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was criticized for perpetuating images of colonial rule, Harris said the tour involving Charles and Camilla struck the right note in addressing topical concerns that included meetings with Indigenous Peoples, addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and climate change.

She said she felt the couple was well-received by the crowds and seemed to genuinely enjoy meeting Canadians.

“The tour covered an extraordinary amount of ground, both geographically and in terms of the number of public events in just three days,” Harris said, noting the current preference is for shorter, more targeted royal tours rather than coast-to-coast journeys of previous decades.

— Morgan Lowrie, Canadian Press, with files from Cassandra Szklarski