DETTAH, Northwest Territories — Royal visits are usually marked by pomp, carefully arranged ceremonies and lavish evening events. And some of that has certainly been seen on a three-day visit to Canada by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, including a glittering reception in Ottawa at the official residence of the Queen Elizabeth’s Representative in Canada.
But on Thursday, the last day of the royal tour, the tenor was much more subdued when Charles and Camilla visited the Northwest Territories.
The pair went to a far northern Indigenous community, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, where the history with the British monarchy is painful.
There is an ancient treaty that the community says the Crown has violated. And there’s the grim legacy of Canada’s now-defunct compulsory residential school system for Indigenous children, for which the Dene holds the Crown partially responsible.
The royal couple arrived in Yellowknife, the provincial capital, at about 3:30 p.m. Eastern Thursday, before traveling to the Dene First Nation community. There they stepped onto the gravel and led a meeting with native leaders where: difficult questions were likely.
Prince Charles joined two Indigenous leaders at a large round table where they exchanged some chat, including about previous visits by the royal family to the Northwest Territories, before reporters were escorted out of the meeting.
Charles’ itinerary for his Canadian tour, including the visit to Yellowknives, was prepared by the government in Ottawa, underscoring just how much the country’s history of discrimination against indigenous peoples has become a major political issue.
In April, Pope Francis issued the first-ever direct papal apology to indigenous peoples for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in residential schools. He plans to go to Canada in July to personally apologize.
On Monday, Charles and Camilla attended a reconciliation event in the province of Newfoundland, where they met Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person to serve as Governor General of Canada, the Queen’s official representative in Canada.
In the historic city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Charles said, “I know our visit here this week comes at an important time, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across Canada committing to honestly and openly reflecting on the past. think and forge a new relationship for the future.”
Edward Sangris, 68, is one of the Dene leaders who met Charles and Camilla on Thursday. He was among the thousands of children sent to the residential schools. He was a Catholic institution in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, until his father defied the authorities and kept him at home.
He declined in an interview to discuss his experiences there, but said the schools — which have become a national scandal and which a government commission found to be a form of “cultural genocide” — are likely to be a topic of conversation.
“This is a way of reconciliation,” Chief Sangris said. “While they are not directly responsible for the damage and pain caused, they are indirectly responsible for the actions of the Canadian government.”
Since Charles is not yet king, Chief Sangris said prior to their meeting that he did not expect an apology from Charles on behalf of the royal family.
Charles and Camilla’s visit to Dettah would last an hour. The couple’s agenda included meetings in the territorial capital, Yellowknife, with members of a special military reserve unit in remote northern communities, and a visit to the rapidly melting remnants of an ice road to discuss climate change.
Chief Sangris said he recognized the responsibility and role of the government of Canada in Indigenous affairs, but believed the monarchy’s symbolic role in making treaties made it responsible for subsequent violations as well.
In addition to grievances about Indigenous schools, the Danes believe that the compensation they receive for allowing mining projects on their traditional lands is less than it should be under the treaty with the Crown.
Before the royal meeting, Chief Sangris said it was unlikely the dispute would be resolved or other critical Dene issues, including a serious housing shortage, would be addressed. Chief Sangris’ father met Charles in 1970, when Charles and his mother, Queen Elizabeth, were visiting Yellowknives. Chief Sangris also met with them at the time, and said that many of the issues raised at the time remain unresolved.
Of Thursday’s visit, Chef Sangris said: “I don’t know what it will bring us.”
Broadly speaking, this is a time of tension over the monarchy’s role in Britain’s former overseas territories. Separate tours of the Caribbean this year by Prince Edward, Charles’ brother, and Prince William, the future king’s son, have been the target of protests against the monarchy and Britain’s brutal historical involvement in slavery.
In Canada, Charles has not faced such loud public opposition. But polls show a declining number of Canadians want to pledge allegiance to another British monarch as the institution appears less and less relevant to their lives.