Prince Philip’s relationship with Indigenous people in Canada memorable, complicated

Prince Philip made more than 70 visits or stopovers in Canada between 1950 and 2013, many of which included meetings and events with First Nations leaders and people.

It was during one of those visits that the prince, who died on Friday at the age of 99, made an impression on Bill Erasmus.

In 1994, Erasmus was the Dene national chief and regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). He was part of a contingent of Indigenous leaders who met with Queen Elizabeth and Philip when the royal couple paid a visit to Yellowknife to celebrate the creation of a new Inuit territory.

In a prepared speech before the Queen, Erasmus voiced his frustration that the federal government hadn’t honoured treaties signed by the monarchy nearly a century ago. He said such inaction had “tarnished and sullied” the Crown’s reputation.

But Erasmus later took part in a more private and relaxed function with the royals, where he found himself connecting with Philip over a shared interest.

“I knew that he was really big on climate change and environmental issues, so I thanked him for that,” Erasmus said.

As they talked further, Erasmus was impressed by Philip’s knowledge on the subject.

The prince criticized “how multinationals were approaching the environment, the great amount of wealth and the waste that they generated,” and was keen “to keep the Earth pristine,” Erasmus said.

Prince Philip's relationship with Indigenous people in Canada memorable, complicated
Chief Eric Large of the Saddle Lake First Nation in Alberta checks his video camera as the royal couple, accompanied by N.W.T. Premier Nellie Cournoyea, attend a traditional and cultural demonstration in Yellowknife on Aug. 21, 1994. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“He commended our people for having a similar view, so we hit it off that way,” he said.

Erasmus said he found the prince’s forthrightness “refreshing.”

“He was really easy to get along with, really easy to speak to. He encouraged you to say what you had to say,” Erasmus said.

Arctic char for ‘a regular guy’ 

That easy camaraderie is also what Johnny May, a 75-year-old bush pilot from Kuujjuaq, remembers about Philip.

The Duke of Edinburgh used to pass through the northern Quebec community to refuel his private plane in the late ’70s and early ’80s, which is where May met and chatted with him on several occasions.

To him and the other pilots, Philip was just “a regular guy,” May said in an interview with CBC News.

“We didn’t treat him any special compared to any other pilot up at the airport. So I guess he enjoyed that and he seemed to be really relaxed around us.”

May recalled one time giving Philip a couple of Arctic char to take home to England. A year later, Philip flew through again and had a message for May from “the missus”: that “she enjoyed the Arctic char immensely.”

May also said that Philip had a good sense of humour and was “always joking around.”

Prince Philip's relationship with Indigenous people in Canada memorable, complicated
Johnny May and his daughter Jeannie May are pictured circa 1980. Jeannie says the Arctic char that Prince Philip received from her father possibly came from this fishing trip to Dulhut. (Courtesy Jeannie May)

History of controversial statements

However, some of Philip’s comments have landed him in trouble, with the prince establishing a reputation over the years for blunt, controversial and sometimes offensive statements. In particular, some of his comments about Indigenous people were seen as racist, not funny.

For example, on a 2002 visit to Australia with the Queen, Philip infamously asked a group of Aboriginal people if “you still throw spears at each other.”

In 1995, he said to a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”

Indeed, Buckingham Palace felt compelled to issue an apology after another gaffe in 2000, when Philip, while touring a factory in Scotland, remarked that some electrical equipment looked so crude “it must have been installed by an Indian.”

“The Duke of Edinburgh regrets any offence which may have been caused by remarks he is reported as making earlier today,” the palace said. “With hindsight, he accepts that what were intended as lighthearted comments were inappropriate.”

WATCH | Royal Family lands in present-day Iqaluit in 1970:

Prince Philip's relationship with Indigenous people in Canada memorable, complicated

The Queen, her husband and two oldest children land in present-day Iqaluit for a visit to Canada’s North in 1970. 1:48

Legacy of public service

Some Indigenous leaders have indicated a desire to not dwell on any past controversies and instead focus on Philip’s public service, as well as the Royal Family’s role in advancing Indigenous affairs in Canada.

Shawn Atleo met Philip in passing as part of official royal visits when he was AFN national chief from 2009 to 2014. He spoke with CBC News in March, when Philip was in hospital.

“I know that the principals that I engaged with, whether it was the Queen herself, Prince Charles or other members, always expressed respect and support for the treaty relationship,” Atleo said.

Prince Philip's relationship with Indigenous people in Canada memorable, complicated
Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by school principal Terry Young, far left, and Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik, watch a demonstration of Inuit sports as they visit Inuksuk High School in Iqaluit on Oct. 4, 2002. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

He also expressed sympathy for the intense spotlight the family operates under.

“I know mine, like a lot of people’s hearts, will go out to the family for the amount of attention that they get,” he said.

In a statement to CBC News on Friday, current AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde extended his condolences to the Royal Family and paid tribute to Philip’s legacy.

“In almost a century of life, Prince Philip has given so much to public service and was a lifelong champion of many worthy causes, especially youth fitness and volunteerism,” he said.

Prince Philip's relationship with Indigenous people in Canada memorable, complicated