Justin Trudeau's relationship with indigenous people and the politics of William and Kate's Canadian Royal tour

Charlie Smith

Royal tours to Canada are almost never seen as exercises in political damage control.

Sept. 25, 2016

If you listen to news anchors drone on about these visits, you would think that public relations was the last thing on anyone's agenda.

But anyone would have to be naive not to think that the prime minister's office helped shape the itinerary for this week's visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

September 25th, 2016September 25th, 2016Today in Vancouver, their stop at the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.'s new Welcome House showcased not only William and Kate, but also Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a photo op that has been seen around the world.

That's to be expected. The same can also be said of the stop by the Kitsilano Coast Guard base, which was reopened by the Trudeau government.

But what's especially noticeable about this Royal tour is the number of stops in First Nations communities.

On Monday (September 24), Prince William and Kate will fly into Bella Bella to see the Great Bear Rainforest. This part of the tour includes a stop at the Heiltsuk First Nation.

The next day the Royals will be in Carcross to visit a mountain bike trail created by the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. I, for one, won't be surprised if Prince William and Trudeau are photographed cruising the trails on two-wheelers with indigenous youth.

On Friday (September 26), William and Kate will be paddling in a canoe in Haida Gwaii. Canoeing, of course, also happens to be a favourite pastime of the Trudeau family.

The British Crown has traditionally had a special relationship with Canada's First Nations, which was reinforced by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Coming after the Seven Years War, it acknowledged the continued existence of aboriginal title unless a treaty was signed extinguishing that right.

So it's not out of the ordinary that a Royal tour would include an indigenous component.

But the extent of aboriginal involvement in this visit has me wondering if there's another agenda at play.

Trudeau is already under fire in some quarters in B.C. after his government granted permits for the $8.8-billion Site C dam in northeastern B.C.

Treaty 8 First Nations are fighting this megaproject in the courts. They're backed by Amnesty International, which has launched a human-rights campaign against the dam.

Meanwhile, there's widespread speculation that the Trudeau government will endorse a new pipeline to bring Alberta oil to the West Coast, despite intense opposition from Coastal First Nations. 

William and Kate's visits to First Nations communities have to be seen in this light.

A cynic might question if the prime minister is using the Royal couple to blunt criticism that the Liberal government's words on indigenous issues aren't being matched by its actions.

At the very least, William and Kate's stopovers will paint a benign image of aboriginal people for the international media covering this Canadian visit.

A picture can tell a thousand words, particularly if it involves a prince or a prime minister wearing a buckskin jacket and a feathered indigenous headdress. 

But the reality on the ground is often very different, particularly in Canada where aboriginal people have been subjected to centuries of repression, not to mention cultural genocide.