Queen Elizabeth II Chapel Royal gift Massey College University of Toronto altar interior 2017

The newest Chapel Royal: St. Catherine’s Chapel at Massey College in Toronto (Picture by Patricia Treble)

Massey College’s chapel is a beautiful, quiet space, its roof arcing low over 40-odd seats. Baptisms, weddings, services and musical performances are held in the interfaith chapel in the heart of the University of Toronto. Today St. Catherine’s Chapel got a major title upgrade as Queen Elizabeth II bestowed it with a rare honorific: it is now a Chapel Royal.

The idea came from a conversation that John Fraser, then master of Massey, had with his daughter, Clara, about Indigenous-settler relations. “What can we do to heal the scabs in this country?” Fraser recalls his daughter asking. Clara Fraser reached out to someone she knew from her studies in First Nations relations, Carolyn King, a former chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, whose lands include Massey and Toronto. Together they decided a place of dialogue and understanding would be helpful. So was born the idea of a new Chapel Royal, designed to be an act of reconciliation.

Supported by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation,  John Fraser wrote to the Queen. With help from the Governor General’s Office and Kevin MacLeod, then Canadian Secretary to the Queen, his petition was successful. On Sept. 16, 2015, Edward Young, deputy private secretary to the Queen, wrote to MacLeod, saying that the Queen had signed off, and agreed that the announcement should be made in 2017, for the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Dominion of Canada.

The title is just one part of the new Chapel Royal, and Massey’s College new relationship with the Mississaugas, which have named the serene space Gi-Chi-Twaa Gimaa Kwe, Mississauga Anishinaabek AName Gamik (“The Queen’s Anishinaabek sacred place”). As well, the chief of the Mississaugas will be a fellow at Massey and there will be an annual symposium on Indigenous-settler relations at the college.

The Crown and Indigenous peoples

John Fraser, a fervent monarchist and historian, knew that the Crown, the state embodied in the monarch (today, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada) has had an enduring relationship with First Nations, treating them as nations. The relationship hasn’t been perfect; treaties have been broken. But the Crown in Canada has evolved, becoming closer to Indigenous peoples, especially in recent years. The chapel reaffirms the nation-to-nation relationship called for by No. 45 in the “calls to action” of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada:

Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation
45. We call upon the Government of Canada, on behalf of all Canadians, to jointly develop with Aboriginal peoples a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown.  The proclamation would build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764, and reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown. The proclamation would include, but not be limited to, the following commitments:

i. Repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.

ii. Adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation.

iii. Renew or establish Treaty relationships based on principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, and shared responsibility for maintaining those relationships into the future.

iv. Reconcile Aboriginal and Crown constitutional and legal orders to ensure that Aboriginal peoples are full partners in Confederation, including the recognition and integration of Indigenous laws and legal traditions in negotiation and implementation processes involving Treaties, land claims, and other constructive agreements.

“Reconciliation is not passive. It is active,” said Hugh Segal, current master of Massey College, at the official announcement ceremony. “It is important to look back on your way into the future,” said Chief R. Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas. “Our relationship with Massey College is good but if there is no foundation then it won’t last.” That foundation, he emphasized, is the Chapel Royal. “We are looking to be a recognized and respected partner in the dialogue,” says Carolyn King. “This is part of that battle.”

The history of Chapels Royal in Canada

Massey’s Chapel Royal may be the first interfaith, interdenominational and Anishinaabek Chapel Royal, but it’s the third Chapel Royal in Canada. The other two trace their roots to a meeting in April 1710 between representatives of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as the Six Nations and Iroquois League) and Queen Anne. The Haudenosaunee asked for military support, reminding Anne’s representatives of the Covenant Chain, the alliances between the Haudenosaunee and Britain’s colonies.

After the American Revolution, Britain’s Indigenous allies fled northward, and established two chapels. St. Paul’s was built in 1785 in Brantford, Ont, and is the oldest surviving church in Ontario. The second, Christ Church in Deseronto, Ont., was built in 1843, replacing an original log church dating back to 1784. A communion plate and Bible presented by Queen Anne are shared between the two sites.

Always known as royal chapels because of the Mohawks’s close relationship with the Crown, the two churches were officially bestowed the titles of Chapel Royal by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004. Six years later, the Queen presented each chapel with a gift of silver handbells, engraved with “The Silver Chain of Friendship, 1710-2010” to commemorate that meeting 300 years before. Both churches have the title “Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal of the Mohawk.” And yes, the two existing Chapels Royal know there’s a new member in their very exclusive club.

royal Coat of arms Massey College chapel royal Queen Elizabeth II

The 18th century coat of arms at Massey College’s chapel (Picture by Patricia Treble)

Massey College would like Prince Harry to visit the newest Chapel Royal when he’s in Toronto in late September for the third incarnation of his Invictus Games, a multi-sport event for disabled veterans. Perhaps he could come in time for the first annual Indigenous-settler symposium. The prince will be busy at the games but they hope he can find the time to see his grandmother’s gift to Canada for its 150th anniversary.

Lest others think about requesting a fourth Chapel Royal anytime soon, that same letter from the Queen’s deputy private secretary concludes, “Making the link with an anniversary of major national significance will make clear that this is…an extraordinarily special proposal and not one which should lead to a plethora of future submissions.”

Now, as they work on the first symposium, they’re adding a few gifts to commemorate the chapel’s new designation. Massey is giving a “tree of life” tapesty, while Sir Christopher Ondaatje, a senior fellow, donated a heavy bronze royal coat of arms from the same era as the treaty. The chapel’s entrance will feature a new mosaic window depicting the council fire from the 1764 Treaty of Niagara between the Crown and 24 Indigenous peoples, including the Mississaugas.

Both Massey and the Mississaugas are confident the new Chapel Royal will bring about needed changes. “This is amazing,” said Carolyn King. Queen Elizabeth II’s gift is indeed a rare honour.