While the Canadian government has sponsored numerous events commemorating the War of 1812, there is another important event that occurred 250 years ago that has escaped Ottawa’s attention, although it also ensured the survival of Canada and had a legal bearing on the future direct of our nation. The Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1963, specified in writing the relationship between the Crown and aboriginal people. For First Nations people, it is seen as the basis today of aboriginal rights in Canada. In fact, the Supreme Court of Canada has continually ruled that aboriginal title to land both pre-existed and survived colonial occupation due to the proclamation, as a result of the clause “...any land that had not been ceded to or purchased by Us as aforesaid, are reserved to the said Indians.” The proclamation further recognized aboriginal rights to harvest resources from their territories — “hunting rights” that are still maintained.
The proclamation also established the boundaries of European expansion in North America, specifically forbiding settlers from purchasing or squatting on aboriginal land. A provision of the proclamation reserved the purchase of native land solely in the hands of the Crown.
The proclamation specified how aboriginal land was to be protected, but the document still asserted Crown sovereignty over all lands in North America that had been ceded by the French to the British by the terms of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Seven Years War. The British wanted to assure First Nations that they would deal with them “honourably” in order to maintain the peace (Pontiac, a former French ally, had started a rebellion against British rule) and have aboriginal people as military allies. The later turned out to be quite important when the American Revolution broke out in 1776, as the Iroquois and other native people fought on the side of the British.
The importance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 in establishing the relationship between aboriginals and newly-created nation of Canada was reinforced when negotiations for the first treaty in the West commenced on July 25, 1871, at the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry). On that date, the lieutenant-governor of Manitoba and the North-West Territories, Adams Archibald, representing the Crown (i.e., Queen as the official head of the Canadian government), met with First Nations leaders to iron out the details of the treaty.
“Your Great Mother (Queen Victoria) wishes the good of all races under her sway,” said Archibald, according to an account of the proceedings by Alexander Morris. “She wishes her red children to be happy and contented ... She would like them to adopt the ways of the whites, to till land and raise food and store it up against a time of want. She thinks this would be the best thing for her red children to do, that it would make them safer from famine and distress, and make their homes more comfortable.”
Archibald then went on to say that the Great Mother wouldn’t compel them to become farmers, leaving them “free to hunt over much of the land” included in the treaty, but they would have to quit hunting on these lands when they were required “to be tilled or occupied.”
He said the Great Mother promised “to make rules to keep them (plots of land) for you, so that as long as the sun shall shine, there shall be no Indian who has not a place that he can call his home, where he can go and pitch his camp, or if he chooses, build his house and till his land.”
Archibald told the First Nations leaders that they would have to face the reality that immigration to the province could not be stopped, “and that now was the time for them to come to an arrangement that would secure homes and annuities for themselves and their children.”
Initially, the chiefs had demanded at least two-thirds of the land in Manitoba as a reserve. Archibald said the chiefs misunderstood the views of the government and didn’t comprehend “the meaning of a reserve,” according to Morris’ report. “They have been led to suppose that large tracts of ground were to be set aside for them as hunting grounds, including timber lands, of which they might sell the wood as if they were proprietors of the soil.
“I wished to correct this idea at the outset,” Archibald added.
The Canadian representatives held firm on an offer of 160 acres for every family of five, saying that with the coming flood of settlers, the Cree and Ojibway would find themselves without any land if they didn’t accept this provision.
“We are, in fact,” said Indian Commissioner Wemyss McKenzie Simpson, “offering here better terms than are offered to Canadian (Eastern) Indians, and to those of the United States ...”
When questioned about what would happen when families increased in size, Archibald replied that they will be provided with more land to the West. “Whenever the reserves are found too small the (Canadian) government will sell the land, and give the Indians land elsewhere.”
These words set the stage for future land surrenders, such as happened at St. Peter’s. His words implied that the terms of treaties were not necessarily final. “The land cannot speak for itself,” Ojibway Chief Henry Prince said, as reported in the Weekly Manitoban. “We have to speak for it; and want to know fully how you are going to treat our children in the Indian Settlement.
“It is said the Queen wishes Indians to cultivate the ground. They cannot scratch it — work it with their fingers. What assistance will they get if they settle down?” Prince firmly believed natives had to have their economic future secured. They may lose most of their lands, but they had to have the means to gain a livelihood.
On August 3, 1871, Treaty No. 1 was signed with the Cree and Ojibway. It was ratified by the Canadian government in September of that year. Archibald warned his superiors in Ottawa that they had to honour the promises, because the native people “recollect with astonishing accuracy every stipulation made ... and if we expect our relations with them to be of the kind which it is desirable to maintain we must fulfill our obligations with scrupulous fidelity.”
It wasn’t until 1994 that the Canadian government acknowledged that it had not entirely met its treaty land obligations. It started the Treaty Land Entitlement process, granting First Nations signing the agreements more unoccupied Crown land as well as funds to purchase private land. Besides Ottawa, the Manitoba government also signed TLE agreements with local First Nations because Crown land falls within its jurisdiction.
Although it may not at all times seem to be the case, if not for the Royal Proclamation of 1763, First Nations people on this side of the border may have suffered through continual bloody warfare with the ultimate goal of their extermination as occurred in the 19th century in the U.S.