More than a century before the confederation of Canada in 1867, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a basis of government in North America. Peter Russell, in his book Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquests, calls the proclamation “the formal beginning of Canada’s constitution,” and adds:
“Accordingly, the Proclamation called for that essential institution of Anglo-American liberal government: a representative assembly. This plan of government reflected the fact that, in terms of constitutional and representative government, Britain was the most advanced European state of the day. …France was still an absolute, not a constitutional monarchy (p.29)”
It’s odd now to think of England as a model for government now, but at the time a progressive King George III empowered the colonies of North America to form government comprised of citizens empowered to: “make laws for the Public, Peace, Welfare, and good Government.” Colonial courts were set up as well for hearing “all cases, criminal as well as civil, according to Law and Equity, and as near as may be agreeable to the Laws of England.”
The force of the proclamation reverberated through the centuries.
The first shock wave was the revolution of the thirteen colonies of what is now the United States. They were not happy with the lines drawn on the map of North America by the King. Land west of the colonies as far as the Mississippi was assigned to Indigenous peoples. The thirteen colonies saw the proclamation as hemming them in from expansion to the west. Two years after the proclamation, the American Revolution started which led to their independence in 1776.
Treatment of Quebec had a better outcome. With the winds of independence drifting through the colonies, Britain decided to accommodate their new colony of Quebec. Wisely so, since Catholic French-speakers outnumbered the English. In the Quebec Act of 1774, French property and civil law was introduced and French-speaking Catholics held public offices.
Recognition of Indigenous land title took a little longer. Two and one-half centuries later, Canada is finally recognizing Indigenous entitlement laid out in the proclamation. Reactionary Canadian governments ignored the proclamation and proceeded with the subjugation and assimilation of Canada’s first peoples.
As one of the three pillars of the founding of Canada, Indigenous peoples were left out of the British North American Act in 1867. The French and English pillars were there says Russell:
“One of the first challenges for the infant Canadian federation was its relations with the absent pillar, the Indigenous peoples (p.163).”
Two centuries after the proclamation, patient Indigenous leaders reminded us of their exclusion. George Manual was one of those who rallied against the failed colonization of his people. As former chief of the Neskonlith band of the Shuswap nation and participant of the residential school in Kamloops, he collaborated with Michael Posluns in writing The Fourth World: An Indian Reality in 1974.
In a landmark court decision, against the wishes of the Province of B.C., the court ruled that Nisga’a territory had never been extinguished. We live on unceded Indigenous land in most of B.C.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is referred to in section 25 of our Constitution Act of 1982. And on the 250th anniversary of the proclamation in 2013 was celebrated in Ottawa with a meeting of Indian leaders and Governor-General David Johnston.
Now we’re getting somewhere.