I often advise my students not to get bogged down on memorizing dates. I ask them to focus on the evolving lives of the past, the movements within history. History is not static; rather, it is a living beast that forms and influences the events of today.
Well, today's date is in fact important, and it's one we all ought to recognize.
It was 250 years ago today King George III of Great Britain issued a proclamation that would have significant contemporary implications.
Following the Seven Years War, France and Great Britain carved up various parts of the world. France conceded holdings in North America, save a couple of islands (most notably St. Pierre and Miquelon. Field trip!), and King George gained a whack of Canadiens who then became British subjects along the St. Lawrence.
At this moment in time, and of critical importance today, the Royal Proclamation announced how the Crown would relate to indigenous peoples.
It was a time of anxiety for King George. He was not eager to go to war with French-allied First Nations and also felt pressure from the 13 colonies that would soon become the United States of America. The Crown needed to protect itself from an all-out war between indigenous groups and colonists along the Atlantic. The Crown proclaimed:
"... that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians, with whom We are connected, and who live under Our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to, or purchased by Us, are reserved to them..."
Furthermore, the Crown suggested only it had the power to negotiate with first peoples:
"And whereas great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in the purchasing Lands of the Indians...We do, with the Advice of Our Privy Council, strictly enjoin and require, that no private Person do presume to make any Purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those Parts of Our Colonies where We have thought proper to allow Settlement..."
When Canada became Canada in 1867, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald was forced to negotiate with First Nations based on this Royal Proclamation, though "negotiation" is a poor descriptor of what followed.
First Nations communities were starving due to the massacre of the bison and were dying from disease brought on by Europeans. This abuse even continued immediately after the signing of treaties. In fact, as James Daschuk points out in his new book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, John A.'s (ironically Christian) government withheld rations or provided rations that were unfit for human consumption. This series of acts, as one of my students suggested last Friday, sounds a great deal like genocide.
Fast-forward to 1982: The Royal Proclamation is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which, in Section 25, suggests the Royal Proclamation supersedes it. The Royal Proclamation is still Canadian law. The land is to be shared, and the first peoples, the original landlords, are to be consulted at all times. This is something our current federal government may have forgotten.
Ignorance about this document creates situations in which Canadians say ludicrous things. For example, last year, Idle No More leaders, understanding this very history, wanted to meet with the Crown. Many, not understanding the Proclamation, issued slurs and jokes that maligned the intelligence of the leadership.
But knowledge, like history, is not static. When Canadians become aware of this document, their perspective changes in profound ways. My students, for example, realize that only 250 years ago we depended on first peoples. We also see that in only a few short generations, many First Nations had their land and culture stolen through gross and documented acts of manipulation.
To move forward, Canadians must return to the Royal Proclamation, not out of fear, as in King George's case, but out of respect for who we all are: brothers and sisters who share this land.
Matt Henderson teaches senior school social studies at St. John's-Ravenscourt School.