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Seeds of change

What a small garden in Yellowknife signifies for Canada’s relationship with King Charles III

  • Apr 17, 2023
  • 713 words
  • 3 minutes
[ Disponible en français ]
King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla tour a Platinum Jubilee Garden with Northwest Territories Commissioner Margaret Thom, whose knowledge is rooted in her Dene culture. (Photo: Ian Vogler - Pool/Getty Images)
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During their last visit to Canada before ascending the throne, King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla found themselves standing at the edge of a garden in Yellowknife. It was the final stop of a whirlwind royal tour honouring the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, and the King (at the time Prince of Wales) had just delivered an impassioned address acknowledging the suffering inflicted on Indigenous Peoples at the hands of Canada’s Indian residential school system.

“We must listen to the truth of the lived experiences of Indigenous Peoples. We must work to understand their pain and suffering,” King Charles III said to the crowd assembled in Yellowknife’s Ceremonial Circle on Frame Lake.

Following the speech, the royal couple were joined by Northwest Territories Commissioner Margaret
Thom on a walk to the final event of the tour: the dedication of a Platinum Jubilee garden.

Co-created by Commissioner Thom and the Canadian Armed Forces (Joint Task Force North), the garden is one of 13 such spaces established by Canada’s lieutenant governors and territorial commissioners in each of their capitals. What each garden looks like depends on the land and relationships that exist with the Crown in that region — many vice-regal representatives worked with, and learned from, their respective Indigenous partners to determine the location and layout of each garden and the plants and medicines to be grown there. 

A common thread binding the gardens is that each vice-regal representative was gifted tobacco seeds from the Chapel Royal at Massey College in Toronto. Massey’s Chapel Royal, or Gi-Chi-Twaa Gimaa Nini Mississauga Anishinaabek AName Gamik (the King’s Anishinabek Sacred Place), on the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, has revived the protocol of the Crown gifting tobacco in honour of the treaty relationships established with many Indigenous Nations across the continent.

Prince Charles, left, walks through a park in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, during part of the Royal Tour of Canada, Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)
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Predating what we now know as Canada (some by centuries), these relationships often saw the sovereign and their representatives accepted as family by their Indigenous counter-parts. When residential schools, and other actions of the Canadian government, are understood as happening within what were meant to be family relationships, the enormity of the betrayal is further revealed.

As she guided the royal couple through the garden, Thom stopped at various stations along the way to gift teachings to the King and Queen around the significance of the different flowers and medicines used in its design. It was not lost on the couple that orange — symbolic of the children lost to the residential school system — was the dominant colour.

“The Prince of Wales understood the importance of the garden as a space that honours the Crown’s relationship — his relationship — with Indigenous Peoples,” recalled Thom. “It is a space meant to centre Indigenous teachings.”

In a contemporary and effective use of the convening role of the Crown, the creation of the string of gardens originated with Saskatchewan’s Lieutenant Governor Russ Mirasty and Manitoba’s former Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon, who used the Platinum Jubilee to highlight the critical and unique Crown-Indigenous relationships that are threaded across Turtle Island.

Dedicating Saskatchewan’s vice-regal garden on the grounds of Government House, Mirasty (himself a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the first Indigenous person appointed to the province’s vice-regal role) said the gardens “recognize the sacred relationship between the Crown and Indigenous Peoples and remind us of the commitments we must continue to uphold.”

Back in Yellowknife, the significance of the future king dedicating such a space can now be fully appreciated considering what would happen in a few months. He left this country with reconciliation on his mind, and so it comes as no surprise that his first words to Canada following his accession were focused on his relationship with the land’s First Peoples.

The King is famously a devoted gardener. He knows that gardens, like relationships, are dynamic spaces that must be cultivated if they are to persevere and flourish. There is a lot of excitement that surrounds a new reign, and it is inspiring to think that among the planning for the coronation and future royal tour of Canada, the King’s mind will likely drift back to that little garden in Yellowknife and the relationships it represents.

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This story is from the May/June 2023 Issue

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