KI First Nation hosts visit from Royal family countess


Countess charms remote Ontario First Nation on unusual Royal visit, speaks of 'reconciliation'

Adrian Humphreys

National Post

Extending greetings from "the Great White Mother" - an old aboriginal reference to the Queen - the wife of the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth II charmed and intrigued a remote First Nations community Thursday with both her informal whimsy and a surprising entreaty of "reconciliation" with the Crown.


Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex, Sophie Rhys-Jones, who married Prince Edward, arrived for an unusual two-day visit at Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation absent the pomp of a typical royal visit.

That this was no ordinary stop on her tour was clear the moment she stepped off the small plane that brought her and a delegation of high-profile women to the remote, fly-in only reserve in northern Ontario.

She was greeted by a military honour guard - the Canadian Rangers, a unit composed mostly of aboriginals living in the north - but unlike the usual stiff formation of crisp military regalia, the Rangers wore their uniform of red hoodies, ball caps and blue jeans.

They held flags aloft on cut tree branches and smiled broadly as the Countess inspected the troop.

Later, as she toured the ramshackle reserve of about 1,300, located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, the Countess was mobbed by curious and excited children. Some sat on her lap and tugged at her clothes while parents snapped photos on their cellphones.

"There was a huge amount of informality," said Sgt. Peter Moon, with the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group. "It was quite wonderful to see. She was smiling and laughing and playing with the kids."

But the visit had a serious message.

In sending her greetings to the community, the elders, the chief and band council from the "the Great White Mother," she also spoke directly of a fractured relationship with First Nations people.

"I hope that by being a representative of the Crown that I will be a convener of reconciliation," the Countess told a crowd packed into the school's gymnasium, the largest room on the reserve, according to a witness.

(The media were not allowed to accompany the delegation.)

Listening in was Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who joined the delegation along with Ruth Ann Onley, wife of Ontario's Lieutenant Governor David Onley, the province's incoming Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Vicki Heyman, wife of the U.S. ambassador to Canada, and others.

At the site where the band's treaty with the Crown was signed in 1929, the Countess was presented with a buckskin waistcoat and the band's chief, Donny Morris, spoke of the importance of the occasion.

As they met, an eagle was seen flying overhead and Chief Morris explained to her the importance of the eagle as a symbol in First Nations' culture.

Some looking on said the moment was profound.

"Growing up, I heard all about the treaty and the signing of the treaty and to finally meet someone from the Royal Family is such an honour," said Leona Mathews, 29, who was born and raised on the reserve.

"It shows me the treaty is a living document."

The visit also was an opportunity to show the delegation the reserve's strengths and problems.

"We get to show her our love of the land here, our water," Ms. Mathews said, but also the overcrowded and under-resourced school that must fit more than 30 junior-kindergarten students into one small classroom, she said.

Like most northern reserves, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug also suffers from poor housing, high unemployment, drug addiction and poor infrastructure.

In fact, there is only one small inn on the reserve, where only two rooms have Queen-sized beds, one reserved for the Countess. Others on the visit were to sleep in people's homes; Ms. Mathews was preparing to host Andrea Cohen Barrack, head of the Trillium Foundation, a provincial financial granting agency.

During the tour, a group of schoolchildren sang the national anthem in the Oji-Cree language and Mrs. Onley, who is also a professional singer, sang to the community.

The Countess was also given a handmade necklace, which she then wore throughout the day.

Ms. Mathews said she was especially looking forward to the evening. The young people in the community were inviting the Countess to join them at Sandy Banks, a hilltop overlooking Big Trout Lake, popular for evening bonfires.

"That's where the youth like to go, so we want to show her that. She can hang out with us," she said.