Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larrabee is among the people from around the world who are mourning the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Larrabee visited Century House on Monday to sign a book of condolences. New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian, in cooperation with the city, arranged for the book of condolences to be available for signing at Century House.
Larrabee, speaking on behalf of herself and not the Qayqayt First Nation, said she has had a longstanding respect for Queen Elizabeth. She was a student at Strathcona Elementary School in the Downtown Eastside in 1951 when the girls had to learn to curtsy and the boys had to learn to bow in preparation for a visit by then-Princess Elizabeth.
“We were going to walk along Georgia Street and watch the motorcade with Princess Elizabeth driving by. I just lucked out, and when the motorcade went by, I could see the princess in the backseat. I was waving and I forgot to curtsy till long after the motorcade went past,” she recalled. “That year was really special for me to see a real live princess.”
That Christmas, Larrabee’s older brother Ron bought her a Princess Elizabeth lunchbox for Christmas.
“I treasured that for many years,” she said.
When the Queen visited Vancouver for the ground-breaking of Canada Place in March 1983, she took the day off work, picked up her mom, and went to BC Place to see and listen to the Queen.
“Today, I speak as Rhonda Larrabee because I can't speak on behalf of Qayqayt First Nation because I don't know how the rest of the members feel,” she told media on Monday. “I'm just happy to be here today. And I'm glad I did this without crying because I've spent a few tears in the last few days.”
Julian said many of his constituents had asked how they could pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth and extend their condolences to her family, so he arranged for the book to be set up at Century House.
“We will be keeping a copy for the archives here and we will be sending the messages to Buckingham Palace to the Royal Family,” he said.
Anyone wishing to sign the book of condolences can visit Century House, 620 Eighth St., daily until Friday, Sept. 16 from 10 a.m. to noon.
New West resident Sherry Messenger was first in line to sign the book of condolences at Century House.
“I'm sorry about her passing,” she said. “She was a strong, dedicated woman.”
Messenger and her husband Jim went to Ottawa one year for Canada Day, where they saw Queen Elizabeth. Jim grew up in New West, and was among the local kids who did the maypole dance during one of her visits.
Alison Silgardo, CEO of the Seniors Services Society of British Columbia, also seized the opportunity to sign the book.
“As a woman leader, Queen Elizabeth has been so inspirational to women over the years,” she said. “No matter what anybody thinks about the institution, it takes a certain amount of stoicism to be who she was. So, to acknowledge and to pay respects to a woman who was so ahead of her time, it was important to do that.”
Julian said Queen Elizabeth II visited New Westminster three times – 1959, 1971 and 1983; she visited Burnaby twice – in 1971 when she was Queen and in 1951 when she was still Princess Elizabeth.
In 1971, nine-year-old Julian was among the New West students who danced for the Queen at May Day. He recently reminisced about that experience with some of his former classmates.
“We all felt Queen Elizabeth really focused on us when we were dancing. She seemed very attentive,” he said. “And so I think there is a closer personal connection in New Westminster than there might be in other cities across the country. That's why we thought it was important, particularly for those who don't want to sign an online or can't sign an online condolences book, to have a physical condolences book that they could sign.”
Julian said students practised their dances “with extra determination” knowing the Queen would be attending May Day.
“It was something that gave us an extra jolt of energy,” he said. “I think we did really well that day.”
Coun. Chuck Puchmayr, who is council’s acting mayor in September, attended the launch of the condolences book at Century House. He recalled taking his daughter Cora-Lea down to Stewardson Way to wave at the Queen as she passed by in her motorcade during her 1983 visit to New Westminster.
Larrabee, choking back tears when speaking of the Queen’s death, said her mother spent seven years at residential school, something that’s greatly impacted her family.
“My mom always said, ‘You kids be good or you'll be taken away,’” she recalled. “And so, I always said that to my girls, but I didn't know why I was saying it.”
Larrabee said her grandchildren were later surprised to learn that they could have been removed from their families.
While many people around the world are mourning the death of the Queen, it’s also focused attention on Britain’s history of colonialism.
Larrabee said she doesn’t blame the Queen for way Indigenous People’s have been mistreated in Canada. She said the Indian Act (1876) and residential school were introduced in Canada before Queen Elizabeth was born.
“The government and the churches were the ones who did it,” she told the Record. “She's always been separate from government.”
Puchmayr, a proponent of reconciliation, said it’s possible to both support reconciliation and to admire the Queen. He said he’s seen photos from the 1800s and early 1900s showing Indigenous peoples in their dugout canoes in the Fraser River holding torches celebrating Victoria Day.
“Other than and how colonization became interpreted by those that became the rulers here, I think there has been on and off support from First Nations communities for the monarchy. They've gone to the monarchy, they've gone to England and asked to have their treaty rights respected,” he said. “I think that's an important piece to continue that relationship, and you don't do it by executing it; you do it by engaging in it.”