Anniversary of Royal Proclamation highlights achievements and unmet challenges

This past week there were commemorative ceremonies across Canada to mark the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation.  This is the document that defined the relationship between Britain and the Indigenous people of British North America and is still used to help recognize aboriginal rights, including the right to self-government. While there is much to celebrate in the rich history that flowed from the Proclamation, it is equally true that many challenges remain from the intention laid out in the document.

When King George III signed the Royal Proclamation of 1763 Canada was a colony, Spain held claim to parts of North America, and the War of Independence that would create the United States of America was more than a decade away. When one considers how much has changed in 250 years, the continuity of the Proclamation is astonishing.

It is often referred to as the “the Indian Magna Carta,” and defines the process for establishing treaties. While some may feel the Proclamation is so old that it cannot apply to modern Canada, the reality is those commitments have been included in the Charter of Rights and Freedom and are entrenched in the Constitution. In that respect it remains a living document and we are both informed and bound by it.  Despite that reality, First Nations are continually forced to prove existing title.  

Among the items that the Proclamation laid out is the notion of “honourable dealing,” which is something that has historically challenged governments – including our current one. At the heart of the problem is an inability to truly listen to First Nations in a manner that one might afford to an equal partner. The current parliament has passed a number of onerous and prescriptive pieces of legislation that directly affect First Nations in much the same way that the Royal Proclamation was arrived at; without aboriginal input or consultation.

There is no doubt that the relationship with First Nations must be given the attention it deserves so that we can move past land claims for the benefit of all parties. The Conservative government is anxious to declare First Nation territories open for business, but is going about the process in a way that can best be described as inflammatory. By refusing to work with First Nations, they have created a climate where frustrations boil over as responsibilities are piled on while rights are diminished.

That approach is pretty much the complete opposite of what First Nations tell us is required to build a real nation-to-nation relationship. It lacks the respect that is the cornerstone of a trusting partnership and drives wedges instead of building bridges. It is the product of a cynical political view that sees Canada’s First Nations as obstacles to be overcome rather than as partners with real historical grievances, but also with similar hopes and desires for their own communities, nation, and children.