A staff presented to the Heiltsuk Nation over a century ago by Prince William’s great-great-great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria has taken on new significance in how this nation approaches reconciliation in this day and age.
The Heiltsuk are a powerful people. Fiercely independent, outspoken and unwavering in their commitment to the land, they have been a force to be reckoned with in the bitter fight against the Enbridge pipeline and have never backed down from a challenge.
This Royal Visit, a first for the community, was more than opportunity to showcase their beautiful home and their thriving culture; it was a chance to show the world what really matters to them as Heiltsuk people.
And it wasn’t without some tension. Signs posted through the townsite voiced the community’s concerns with the Royal visit, suggesting that there were many questions to be addressed.
“We have been in meetings all day,” a local band councillor told us late in the day before the event. “There are still some outstanding questions about what we feel as a community about this visit and what it means to our people.”
The torrential downpour meant that many of the days proceedings had to be cancelled. The flight tour of the Great Bear Rainforest was cancelled, as was a boat tour. The Royals did touch down just after noon Pacific Coastal flight, flanked by dozens of British and national media, as well as heavy security.
Cultural celebrations continued as scheduled inside the hall as the couple arrived just before 1pm to excited cheers of onlookers. The Hemas (hereditary leadership) of the Heiltsuk Nation awaited their arrival and William and Kate took time to meet each of the hereditary chiefs, shaking hands and speaking with each in turn as they entered the hall.
After being seated at the front of the hall, Heiltsuk youth shared several dances and songs with the couple, who were joined by by Premier Christy Clark, Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon, and the federal Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould.
In a candid moment, Kate was swarmed by young children after the dance. She appeared to enjoy every moment of it, engaging directly with several of the young girls who came up to see her.
Traditional protocol of the Heiltsuk Nation entailed the presentation of gifts to the royal couple and dignitaries. The Duke and Duchess were wrapped in traditional blankets before receiving several items; their favourite appearing to be traditional blankets and vests for their children, and a drum for Prince George.
In a moving speech closing the ceremony at the hall, Heiltsuk hereditary chief Edwin Newman presented the staff given to the Heiltsuk by Queen Victoria, and spoke of his community’s resilience, sovereignty, and ties to the land.
“We own this land. Every bit of it,” Newman stated. “This staff represents that we are a sovereign nation, and this is the message I am passing through your Royal Highnesses. Our minds will never change about our ownership of this land.”
The hall was filled with the sounds of ecstatic cheering as Newman reiterated his community’s stance against Enbridge and their commitment to protect their land from exploitation. Engaged with the Royals nation to nation, Newman proudly held up the staff that was presented to his ancestors in the 1860s and called for more First Nations control over resource management in their territories.
Chief Marilyn Slett spoke directly to Prince William as she recalled her community’s love for his mother, whom she praised as a “great humanitarian.”
“We’ve been asked by many of our people to share with Prince William how much we cared for your mother,” she told the duke to enthusiastic applause. “She was a great humanitarian, a world advocate…and she remains in our hearts.”
The focus then turned to the Great Bear Rainforest at a press conference at the Elder’s Lodge where Premier Clark unveiled a poster detailing the Great Bear agreement and its integration into the Queen’s Canopy Initiative, which was launched last year to create a network of forest conservation programs involving all 53 countries in the Commonwealth. Prince William then took to the podium to deliver his only public speech during the visit in Bella Bella.
Conservation was the focus of the royals’ visit to B.C.’s Central Coast, and environmental causes have topped the agenda for this youngest generation of Royals. William told a small audience during the dedication that environmental protection and collaboration with indigenous people is a priority for Queen Elizabeth II.
“The Commonwealth has at its heart always been about the values that bind as people,” he said. “When we protect our rivers, oceans, atmospheres and like today, our forests, we are telling our children that their future prosperity cannot be disconnected from the health of the natural world.”
Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Director Kelly Brown said he was feeling optimistic about the future relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people.
“We think that through this visit, we can hopefully build on that relationship, that they can get more and more (connected) with the Heiltsuk people and their desire to reconcile, to make things right,” he said.
The skies cleared for the last hour of the couple’s visit and it concluded with a walk through the rainforest where they unveiled a plaque honouring the Queen’s Canopy Initiative and were presented with carved paddles before boarding their flight back to Victoria.