Royal Proclamation of 1763, Canada's 'Indian Magna Carta,' turns 250

On Monday, academics, politicians and aboriginal leaders gather near Ottawa to commemorate the most important doument in Canadian history about the relationship between Aboriginal Peoples and the land that would become Canada.

A pivotal moment in Canadian and First Nations history gets a small celebration

Canada's 'Indian Magna Carta,' turns 250

10 years ago
Duration 3:46
Pivotal moment in Canadian and First Nations history gets a small celebration

A symposium of academics and aboriginal leaders is being held near Ottawa to commemorate one of the most important documents in Canadian history.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III, essentially defined the relationship between the Crown and the native peoples in the new territories in North America acquired by the British — land that would become Canada. 

The document became a guide to all treaty-making since, and its presence is felt in the legal underpinnings of Confederation in 1867 and in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. Some refer to it as the Indian Magna Carta.

The treaty relationships and aspirations that were expressed in the Royal Proclamation are about us sharing the land, wealth and resources of this country. That has not happened- Shawn Atleo, AFN national chief

The Creating Canada symposium marking the 250th anniversary of the signing of the document was organized by the Land Claims Agreements Coalition, a group of modern treaty governments and organizations in Canada.

In a press release, the coalition's co-chair, Mitchell Stevens, president of Nisqa'a Nation, said, "The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is a foundational document in Canadian history because it affirms the government-to-government relationship between First Nations and the Crown."

The proclamation put in writing the inherent right of aboriginals to their land, and it acknowledged the "the great frauds and abuses have been committed in the purchasing lands of the Indians, to the great prejudice of our interests, and to the great dissatisfaction of the said Indians."

Modern-day treaties

But Chief Danny Cresswell of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in Yukon said in an interview the Royal Proclamation of 1763 has never been implemented, nor have modern-day treaties. He said Carcross/Tagish signed a treaty with Ottawa seven years ago, but the guaranteed law-making authority for education and child welfare that was promised in the treaty has not happened.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763. (Julie Van Dusen/CBC)

The Royal Proclamation of 1763

Issued by King George III at the end of the Seven Years' War between Britain and France, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 set out how the inhabitants of the former colony of New France, now part of Quebec, would be governed under the British.

It also recognized that indigenous peoples in British North America had rights to the lands they occupied, and promised to protect and not "molest them."

Because of that promise, which lives on in Article 35 of Canada's Constitution Act of 1982 and a series of Supreme Court rulings, natives have long viewed the proclamation as a bill of rights for indigenous peoples in this part of North America.

"[It] says [the Crown] can't go in and invade their lands without some kind of a consultation or, more than that, it says they have to be compensated, dealt with, treated fairly ... It wasn't lived up to or enforced. It was nice to say ..." Cresswell said.

However, Cresswell said he was pleased both Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Bernard Valcourt will be present at the symposium Monday.

"That's a big step. That shows there's some meaning to this," he said.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in an interview with Evan Solomon of CBC Radio's The House, "The treaty relationships and aspirations that were expressed in the Royal Proclamation are about us sharing the land, wealth and resources of this country. That has not happened."

This is a critical time for a government which is pitting a lot of its economic policy on resource development, Atleo said, speaking of the more than $600 billion in natural resources that Canada wishes to develop.

"First Nations are absolutely four-square right in front of and adjacent to and in the middle of these proposed development areas, and have the right to free, prior informed consent and will have a say over natural resources development in Canada.

"Direct nation-to-nation discussions is the only way forward," he said.

Atleo added he intends to accompany the Governor General to London at a future date to commemorate the signing of the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

Grand Chief David Harper of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak is already in London and has attended a reception at the High Commission for Canada and a pipe ceremony at Green Park. On Monday, a meeting with a member of the House of Lords is scheduled.

'250th anniversary of broken promises'

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, speaking to reporters Sunday during a meeting of the NDP's federal council in Ottawa, called the event "the 250th anniversary of broken promises."

He noted the proclamation was "the first time the word nation was used to describe the original inhabitants of Canada. The NDP will become the first government in Canadian history to respect that nation-to-nation approach."

The Creating Canada symposium is taking place at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que.

The protest group Idle No More plans to hold a rally at the museum along with what an article on its website says is "an international day of action " on Oct. 7, with rallies planned across Canada and in the U.S. and U.K.

The federal government has contributed $30,000 to the symposium which is otherwise funded by the Land Claims Agreement Coalition and the registration fees of participants.

Although the government spent $28 million on celebrations for the War of 1812, and has plans for the 200th birthday of Sir John A. MacDonald and the 25th anniversary of the signing of NAFTA, it did not make similar preparations for the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation of 1763.