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‘Low-key’ King Charles focused on Indigenous reconciliation in first year on throne

MONTREAL — Chadwick Cowie says he’s feeling cautiously optimistic about King Charles III’s relationship with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples after meeting the monarch at a July garden party in Scotland.

Cowie, who was invited to attend as part of a delegation from the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg — or Mississauga — Nation in Ontario, said that as 8,000 guests waited for the King’s attention, Charles spent 15 minutes of the two-hour event talking to the Indigenous Canadians.

“It was only 15 minutes we got with him, but it was the first 15 minutes that a political delegation from my nation has had with the Crown since 1860,” Cowie said. 

Cowie, who is also a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said discussion topics with the King included the Canadian wildfires and what’s happening in their communities. The short meeting, Cowie said, showed that Charles, who is marking his first year on the throne, has a “willingness to listen” to Indigenous people as they work to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship that was formalized in treaties dating back hundreds of years. 

He said the meeting ended after the delegation offered Charles a wampum belt, similar to the one presented at the conclusion of the 1764 Treaty of Niagara, considered a foundational moment between First Nations and the Crown that reaffirmed peaceful relations between the two. 

Charles ascended to the throne on Sept. 8, 2022, after the death of his 96-year-old mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who ruled for more than 70 years.  

In the months since his coronation in May, experts say the monarch has chosen to remain low-key and focus on matters closer to home rather than in farther-flung Commonwealth countries such as Canada — though they believe he’s eager to maintain the connection from a distance.

For now at least, it appears that Canadian groups seeking an in-person visit with the King will have to travel to him. 

“His Majesty’s first official visit to Canada as King of Canada has not yet been determined,” the federal Heritage Department wrote Wednesday. 

Carolyn Harris, a Toronto-based royal commentator, said Charles appears to be emphasizing spending time in the United Kingdom in his first year as he looks to provide a sense of “continuity” after his mother’s death.

While there have been recent visits to Canada by Princess Anne and Prince Edward, the Duke of Edinburgh, Harris said there’s a good chance that there will be fewer visits in the future, given Charles’ preference for a smaller group of working royals, and the demands on his time.

Polls have shown that Canadians are largely indifferent to Charles, and that attachment to the Royal Family is dropping. 

Given the fact that many Canadians already spend little time thinking about the monarchy, it’s possible that “if members of the Royal Family aren’t physically present in Canada, that even less time will be spent discussing and debating the role of the monarchy in Canada,” Harris said.

Arthur Milnes, a historian and political speechwriter, agrees that Charles has kept a relatively low profile in his first year. However, he believes the monarchy’s connection to Canada is as strong as it ever was, noting the outpouring of affection after the queen’s death, and Charles’ decades of visits to Canada since the 1970s. 

“Charles has probably been to more places in Canada than most Canadians,” he said. 

Nathan Tidridge, the author of a book about Canada’s constitutional monarchy and vice-president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada, said the monarchy’s level of involvement in Canada is dictated by the Canadian government. 

“It’s not like (Charles) can just get on a plane and come to Canada,” Tidridge said. “Our constitutional monarchy doesn’t allow for that to happen.”

However, he said Charles’ decision to seek out a meeting with the Indigenous delegation at the garden party shows that he wants to engage with Canada as much as possible, especially when it comes to reconciliation. 

In May, Charles chose to meet a delegation of Canadian Indigenous leaders in London — only two days before his coronation — where they discussed reconciliation and the need to build a strong relationship between First Nations and the Crown.

More recently, Charles issued a statement saying he and his wife, Queen Camilla, were “desperately concerned” about the states of emergency due to wildfires in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

“Whenever there’s an opportunity for an engagement, he makes that engagement,” Tidridge said of the King. 

The federal government has announced that Charles’s image will eventually appear on Canadian currency, as well as its intention to award 30,000 Coronation medals to people who have made significant contributions to Canada or abroad. Tidridge said he thinks the King’s travel schedule will pick up in 2024, and will possibly include a Canadian tour.

Tidridge said it’s unclear whether Charles will ever command the same affection as his well-loved mother, but said he may not need to. The King has earned widespread respect for his decades-long commitment to the environment and climate change, and has the ability to bring people together — a “power to convene” — that has become more, rather than less important, in a polarized world, he said.

Over the years, “I think he’s going to be viewed quite favourably,” Tidridge said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press