Remembering the Queen of Canada

As part of the British Commonwealth, Canada has a complex relationship with the monarchy. A Canadian scholar examines the British Crown’s reliance on religious and military symbolism to invoke its authority, especially with regard to upholding treaties with Indigenous peoples.

Queen Elizabeth II Cecil Beton photograph

By Pamela Klassen

I rose early on the morning of September 19, 2022 to view the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in full color, broadcast live all day long on CNN. Was this media attention a sign that Americans, even in revolutionary Boston, cared about the death of the Queen and the future of the British monarchy? As a teenager in the summer of 1981, I had also woken up in the wee hours to watch the royal wedding of Charles and Diana. Back then, I watched a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast on a grainy black and white TV at a cabin on a lake in Manitoba. 

I am not the most dedicated of royal watchers, but I have been sufficiently fascinated by this fabulously wealthy, divinely ordained family to lose sleep over them. My teenage self may not have fully picked up the many political and religious nuances of the pageantry, guest list, and fashion choices of the royal wedding. These days, however, my continued fascination with the monarchy’s ceremonial display is due not only to the human drama and the lavish spectacle, but also to the royal family’s enduring, if often unrecognized, political power. 

Royal power is on full display in the pageantry of their weddings and funerals. Not mere ritual, the highly choreographed ceremony of the Queen’s funeral is a reminder of the Christian grounding of monarchic power. Queen Elizabeth, along with other queens and kings, was crowned in a Christian ceremony, her power sparked when an archbishop consecrated her with holy oil. As I’ve written about in a book called Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, imperial legacies of spiritual jurisdiction continue to shape the settler colonial states of Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, and even the republic of the United States. 

By spiritual jurisdiction, I mean the ways that colonizers in the Americas have grounded their legal legitimacy in Christian claims to power. Consider “treaties,” for example. When representatives of the British Crown negotiated treaties with Indigenous nations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they invoked the power of a head of state. With the long reign of Queen Victoria, many treaties were negotiated in her name, often referring to her as “the Great Mother.”

In a more complex way, Christian spiritual jurisdiction was crucial for settler projects of Indigenous dispossession and assimilation. Even when Canadian and US settlers thought they lived in democratic countries defined by the separation of church and state, they still relied on a union of church and state power; they relied on what my coauthors and I called “churchstateness” in our book Ekklesia. Churchstateness bound together Christian supremacy and colonial law as the grounds for criminalizing Indigenous ceremony, land tenure, political leadership, and kinship relations.

newspaper clippings

At her funeral, the Queen was remembered as a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and friend, in addition to being commemorated as a Christian and a monarch. The dean of Windsor, David Conner, lauded her “uncomplicated yet profound Christian faith,” a phrase echoed by Anglicans in Canada and Episcopalians in the United States. The ceremonies that accompanied her in death—from Balmoral Castle to Windsor Castle—were far from uncomplicated. Instead, they were displays of spiritual jurisdiction with reverberations across the Commonwealth and beyond. Whether divinely anointed upon her coronation or lying in state in parliament and churches, the ceremonies to crown and mourn the Queen unabashedly show that the power inherent in the Crown comes from a deep synergy between church and state that is at once deeply historical and malleable.

The Queen’s funeral, like the wedding and pretty much every other royal ceremony, was steeped in the symbols and rituals of Christianity and the military. The taken-for-grantedness of the primacy—even monopoly—of Christianity in the State funeral baldly displayed the entanglement of church and state in the UK, and the ways that it is undergirded by the military. The hymns sung, scriptures recited, and prayers recited by those gathered in churches Edinburgh and London were Christian classics. Some who appeared on TV clearly knew the words to the hymns, others struggled or stayed silent altogether. The speakers at Westminster Cathedral represented religious diversity, or more accurately, Christian diversity, with the only person of color being Shermara Fletcher, a Pentecostal representative of a group called “Churches Together in England.” In addition to the Queen’s coffin literally being pulled by members of the Royal Navy, the funeral cortege from Westminster Chapel to the Wellington Arch was led by four Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) from Canada, on their horses.

rmpc at funeral

The RCMP, key actors in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, also participated in abduction of Indigenous children in support of the church-state collaboration of the “Indian Residential School” system. This term at Harvard, in my class “Truths & Reconciliations,” my students and I read many of the documents of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, (TRC) which named residential schools as a system of cultural genocide. In a class on the role of art and ceremony relating to the TRC, we viewed Cree artist Kent Monkman’s now iconic painting, “The Scream,” which depicts RCMP and Christian clergy pulling children from their families. A painting that even caught the attention of the BBC, “The Scream” is one of several paintings by Monkman that depict the role of the RCMP, in their bright red coats, in pivotal moments of violence against Indigenous peoples. The RCMP’s conspicuous presence at the head of the cortege accompanying the Queen’s flag-and-flower-laden coffin underlined the absence of Indigenous ceremony (though not Indigenous guests) in the choreography of the funeral. From what I could see on TV and in reading the newspapers, there were no Indigenous Elders bringing greetings or speaking words of condolence at the funeral.

The Scream painting

As I discuss in Ekklesia, representatives of the British Crown, during its period of imperial expansion, drew often upon the malleability of spiritual language to achieve their goals. In negotiating treaties between the Crown and Indigenous nations, representatives of the Monarch and Indigenous leaders both based their “sacred promises” with reference to God or Creator. Though some Crown representatives clearly did not feel bound by these promises, Indigenous people, including those who attended the Queen’s funeral, continue to remind Canadians, and the Crown, of the sacredness of treaties. As John Borrows and other legal scholars have shown, being “treaty people” is rooted in Indigenous ceremony and legal orders just as much as in Canadian law. Canadians (and US Americans, with a different history) need to recognize that they live in multi-jurisdictional territory in which settler jurisprudence is not the only law of the land. 

As the embodiment of the Crown—and officially the Queen of Canada since 1953—Queen Elizabeth II was regularly called upon by Indigenous leaders to exercise her spiritual jurisdiction to repair the broken treaty promises made in the name of the Crown. Call 45 of the Calls to Action of the TRC reminds the Crown and Canadians of the long history of treaty promises, by calling for a “Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation,” as a follow-up to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764 (which, arguably, both undergird US jurisdiction as well). Based on the research of legal scholar John Borrows and others, Call 45 insists that when King George III proclaimed that the Crown would protect the “Lands of the Indians” from the “frauds and abuses” of settlers, he was acknowledging Indigenous jurisdiction. 

Call to Action 94 added to this chorus by calling for an amendment of the “Oath of Allegiance to the Monarch”— recited at Canadian citizenship ceremonies— to include faithful observance of “Treaties with Indigenous Peoples.” In June 2021, the Canadian Parliament amended the Oath of Allegiance in response to Call 94. In a forthcoming book on oaths, treaties, and covenants in multi-religious and multi-jurisdictional societies, which I’m co-editing with colleagues Benjamin Berger and Monique Scheer, I consider the longer history of oaths of allegiance in Canada, placing them in relation to Anishinaabe teachings of good governance and good relations. Together with my co-author, Isabel Klassen-Marshall, we argue that debates over oaths reveal how the seemingly secular politics of the Canadian nation-state are rooted in often misrecognized Christian and colonial privilege. The amended Oath of Allegiance opens up new opportunities for Canadians to become aware of how to honor treaty promises in a multi-jurisdictional way. Not mere window-dressing, these ceremonies provide a narrative and a call to action for Canada to live up to its nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous nations.

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What does the future hold for the King of Canada and his exercise of spiritual jurisdiction? Not long after the Queen’s death, many Indigenous leaders called upon King Charles III, in his role as King, to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a claim of spiritual jurisdiction by which European Christians handed to themselves much of the Americas. Others have speculated that Charles will reign over a more explicitly multi-faith monarchy. Certainly, with Rishi Sunak as the new Prime Minister, a Hindu who swore his Oath of Allegiance as an MP on the Bhagavad Gita, Charles is already cast into a multi-faith church-state relationship. If at his Coronation in May 2023 he repeats the same vows as those of his mother, he will agree to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.” Vowing to inviolably protect the Church of England as the established church and to support the “true profession of the Gospel,” while also committing oneself to the flourishing of a multi-religious society, will be a challenge indeed. 

King Charles III could most creatively rise to this challenge by taking seriously the multiple spiritual jurisdictions in effect in his realm. He already reigns over a multi-jurisdictional group of islands known as Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and other names. As King of Canada, Charles III is the monarch of a land that also goes by many names. While settlers call it Canada, Indigenous Nations have their own names for their territory from coast to coast to coast, including Eeyou Istchee (Cree territory in Northern Quebec) or Anishinaabewaki (Anishinaabe territory around the Great Lakes). As reminders of ongoing Indigenous presence, these names matter. They can also change, as Charles and his family should know well. 

For example, the Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago along the northwest coast of Turtle Island (aka North America), were once named after King Charles’ ancestor, Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III of Royal Proclamation and American Revolution fame. Since 2010, the islands are once again known as Haida Gwaii, the lands of the Haida people. As recently as the summer of 2022, the village of Queen Charlotte became the Village of Daajing Giids, restoring the ancient Haida name. 

Queen Elizabeth II will not be forgotten as the Queen of Canada. Her name adorns schools, streets, and parklands across Turtle Island, a reminder of the ongoing, yet contested, spiritual jurisdiction of the British monarchy. As the restoration of Daajing Giids demonstrates, even the name of a Queen may give way to names that are reminders of other kinship relations, spiritual powers, and legal orders.

Queen Elizabeth II funeral casket

Contributor Bio

Pamela Klassen is William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies in the Canada Program at the Weatherhead Center. She is Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She is the author of many books and articles, including The Story of Radio Mind: A Missionary’s Journey on Indigenous Land (Chicago, 2018).


  1. Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day, Cecil Beaton (1904–1980), 2 June 1953. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 2153177
  2. Guardsmen march down The Mall on Coronation Day (left) and The Queen sits in regal splendour during a solemn moment in her Coronation (right). Combined image of newspaper clippings from Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Credit: Bradford Timeline, Flickr, (CC BY-NC 2.0)
  3. Canadian Royal Mounted Police during the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth II on September 19, 2022. In the background, flags from the 55 Commonwealth nations line the street. Credit: James Boyes, Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)
  4. Kent Monkman (Fisher River Band Cree), The Scream, 2017. Acrylic paint on canvas; 84 x 132 in. Credit: Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds and funds from Loren G. Lipson, M.D, 2017.93. © Kent Monkman
  5. Queen Elizabeth II’s casket adorned with the Sovereign's Sceptre with Cross, the Orb, and the Imperial State Crown during her funeral procession held on September 19, 2022. Credit: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Flickr, Public Domain