Long before Prince William was born, his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, presented a royal staff to a chief of B.C.’s Heiltsuk Nation.
The gift was said to be a symbol of the monarch’s commitment to helping Canadian aboriginals. On Monday morning, William and his wife, Kate, were shown the staff to remind them of that commitment as they visited Bella Bella, in the heart of Heiltsuk territory.
“The promises that Queen Victoria made to our ancestors mean a lot to our people today,” local resident Constance Tallio said after the community gathering.
She doesn’t believe the British monarchy has kept Victoria’s promise to the Heiltsuk, but she was still holding out hope that the younger generation of royals would do more to promote the rights of indigenous people.
The biggest thing that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge could do would be to protect the environment, Tallio believes.
“This is very, very important to the Heiltsuk people, because our backyard is our breadbasket and without our salmon and our seafoods and our wild game, when they’re depleted, we don’t have anything,” she said. “It’s really important that it’s saved and there’s no tankers or anything else that goes by.”
Conservation was the cornerstone of the royals’ visit to B.C.’s Central Coast. The duke and duchess offered a royal endorsement of the Great Bear Rainforest under the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, which promotes conservation of indigenous forests. 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.”
This year, the Heiltsuk joined other coastal First Nations and the B.C. government in announcing an increase to the area, blocking off 85 per cent of the forest from logging. The rainforest spans 6.4 million hectares, and has been the subject of about two decades of protests and tricky talks between First Nations and government. It’s home to towering trees, Pacific coastal wolves and the famed white Kermode bear.
Kelly Brown, director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, said that he was feeling optimistic about the future of the relations between the British monarchy and First Nations.
“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.
Wild, rainy weather prevented the royals from taking an aerial tour of the rainforest, and from participating in a boat excursion through McLoughlin Bay, but they did manage a short walk into the woods to commemorate the occasion. The wet conditions meant all the rest of the day’s events had to be moved indoors.
But the weather didn’t deter a lone protester, Vic Gladish, who held up a sign reading, “No Pipelines — NONE,” outside the hall where B.C. Premier Christy Clark and federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould were giving speeches to mark the royal endorsement of the forest. His message was meant for both federal and provincial governments, he said.“We don’t want any pipelines that are going to bring oil to the coast and to the Great Bear Rainforest,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Heiltsuk drummers and singers greeted the royal couple, and elementary-school student Aryia Gladstone wore traditional Heiltsuk regalia to present the duchess with a cedar-bark bouquet.
Dayton White was among the singers who welcomed William and Kate to the Wawiska Community Hall for the cultural celebration.
“It was pretty awesome to have them here just for a little while and it was real nice to have everybody coming to Bella Bella that hasn’t been here before,” he said.
Local children also performed dances, including one entitled the “Ladies’ Welcome,” which was composed in 1986 for Expo.
Jenna Starr is a teaching assistant at the Bella Bella community school, and she came down to the community hall to watch her students perform.
“It’s nice to see the kids all happy and excited. They’ve been talking about it for weeks and having practices down at the breakwater,” she said. “They did amazing. There’s a lot of kids that are very open with their culture.”
A common theme among members of the community was the widespread love for Diana, Princess of Wales.
“We’ve been asked by many of our people to share with Prince William how much we cared for your mother,” Chief Marilyn Slett told the duke to enthusiastic applause. “She was a great humanitarian, a world advocate … and she remains in our hearts.”