Canada should use this moment to return Crown lands to Indigenous Peoples

With the Queen dead, Canadian territories now officially belong to King Charles. Why?
Photo: Global Alliance of Territorial Communities
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Queen Elizabeth is dead, but the monarchy lives on in Canadian law.

The monarchy remains Canada’s head of state: a formal role with real power. Working in immigration law, I cannot get through my day without the monarchy affecting my work. I see her in the upper right corner of my screen, watching my clicks and scrolls. “Honour the memory of Her Majesty” the government requests (demands?). I clicked ctrl+F to change submissions to the “Court of Queen’s Bench” to the “Court of King’s Bench.”

In the moments after her death, citizenship ceremonies were halted for new Canadians — many coming from former British colonies — now forced to swear allegiance to His Majesty King Charles III. Although there was no knight’s armor, the ceremony ended with a medieval proclamation. “The Queen is dead. God save the King!”

I hope not. Not that I’m wishing any ill health for Charles — although I don’t blame victims of British imperialism who find it cathartic to do so. Instead, the Queen’s death presents a unique opportunity for Canada to end the monarchy.

Rather than a benign symbol, the British monarchy is the culmination of four hundred years of colonization on Turtle Island. During her coronation in 1953, she was adorned with jewels stolen from Africa and India.

To what degree Elizabeth was complicit in the genocide against Indigenous people remains unclear. Under her reign, Indigenous people in Canada could not vote. Canada’s Indian Act, which laid out the legal framework for residential schools, and criminalizing Indigenous cultural practices, was maintained under Elizabeth’s rule.

Today, Indigenous kids are still being snatched, land stolen and women murdered.

But gradually, the prospect of full decolonization is emerging. This cannot be complete without the monarchy’s removal.

The way forward

Of all the Commonwealth countries, it will be the most difficult for Canada to remove the monarchy.

Unlike countries such as New Zealand that do not have a codified constitution, Canada’s constitution enshrines the monarchy. This has not stopped other countries, such as Barbados, which became a republic last year. But whereas Barbados simply amended its constitution through Parliament, Canada also requires the approval of all 10 provinces.

If there is any chance of this happening, it is now. Few Canadians were alive when Queen Elizabeth II was not our head of state. The only time I’ve seen a King on our money was collector’s coins in my mom’s attic. While many were not fans of the monarchy, there was little impetus to change an institution that was so normalized. Also, as a white woman, and widely viewed as a sweet old grandmother, the Queen was associated with morality, virtue and kindness, despite her role in normalizing and benefiting from British imperialism. That is about to change. Soon King Charles will be on our banknotes and making lavish royal visits. For many reasons, Charles is far less popular than his mother.

While half of Canadians have expressed opposition to the monarchy under Elizabeth’s rule, two thirds are opposed if Charles were king.

Ending a legal fiction to strengthen Indigenous rights

Despite his power, Charles’ reign as Canada’s king is a legal fiction. It presumes that all Canada’s territory is under his control. Yet, despite generations of genocide and oppression, Indigenous people were never conquered. Treaties — not letters of defeat — were signed between the Crown and Indigenous nations, often under extreme pressure, including starvation and disease.

Most of these treaties mutually recognized each other’s sovereignty.

In partnership with the monarchy, Canadian governments made these agreements, under the presumption that all land is “Crown land.”

Removing the monarchy would put an end to this legal fiction and the settler colonialism that came with it. Some worry that since treaties are made with the “Crown,” abolishing it would end them. But as successors to the monarchy, settlers would inherit treaty rights and obligations.

Removing the monarchy would open the constitution, presenting an opportunity to strengthen Indigenous rights — a discussion already underway in Australia.

But there’s also a risk. Conservatives are in power in six of the 10 provinces. By the time the constitution is opened, Pierre Pollievre may be Prime Minister, so he could potentially use the opportunity to remove Indigenous rights. We must not let that happen.

If the constitution cannot be changed, the monarchy can still be removed elsewhere. Although Canada would legally remain a monarchy, it should be absent from Canadian life.

Like statues of slaveholders in the United States, statues honoring the monarchy must come down. Royal visits should be allowed only when reparations have been made to Indigenous people, and the monarchy has publicly recognized their sovereignty. Crown land must be returned.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Rosanne Archibald tweeted “As many mourn the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, let’s remember that grief and accountability can exist in the same space, simultaneously. As National Chief, my next step in Crown relations is to fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action #45.”

The First Nations Leadership Council, made up of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), B.C. Assembly of First Nations and First Nations Summit, has already called on the new king to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery as his first official act.

Forcing new Canadians to swear allegiance to ‘the monarch and their successors’

The monarchy should also be removed from the citizenship oath.

New Canadians should not be required to swear that they will be “faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles.” The oath not only re-traumatizes victims of British imperialism, but since the monarch is also the head of the Church of England, also goes against religious freedom. Whereas the constitution only presents one avenue of removing the monarchy, these efforts can be made at all levels of government, in the courts, and through activism.

All of this is possible if we want it. Naysayers might argue there are bigger issues than changing our head of state. They are right. That’s why removing the monarchy must be grounded in decolonization. The death of a monarch presents a rare opportunity to make this happen.

True reconciliation means decolonization. To reconcile with our past means going beyond apologies and land acknowledgments. True reconciliation, which every political party in Canada officially supports, is not possible while Canada remains tied to the British monarchy, and our leaders continue to extract resources from stolen lands.

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