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Canada's Magna Carta turns 250

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At 250 years old, it is considered as important as the Magna Carta. Yet few Canadian likely have heard of the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Before you stop reading for fear this will be a dry history lesson, bear with me; this is an ancient tale of kings, chiefs, wars, jockeying for land and an all-out push to bring some sense of order to the frontiers of pre-Confederation Canada.

The proclamation started out as a simple plan to temporarily appease "Native peoples," who were seen as resentful and a threat to British efforts to colonize First Nations' lands.

It laid out the ground rules for the buying and selling of land west of the Appalachians (near Canada's East Coast), allowing only the Crown to negotiate with First Nations as settlers pushed further and further to the west.

With a stroke of the royal quill, gone were the days of backroom land deals where a random settler could approach a trapper and buy "his" land from him. Instead, treaties had to be signed with negotiations conducted in public and compensation paid for land complete with annual annuities.

So profound was this process and the honouring of annual payments that it is still practised today during "Treaty Days" celebrated each and every summer. During this exchange, federal government representatives pay $5 to First Nations people who, by accepting, renew the terms of the treaties to allow continued access to the land.

As the royal signatory, King George III likely never imagined he was signing a precedent-setting document that would forever grant First Nations people certain rights to the lands they occupied.

In the end, it became the first legal recognition of First Nations' rights by the British Crown. According to many, it cleared the way for land claims and self-government issues that are as alive and actively debated today as they were a quarter of a millennium ago.

Connie Wyatt Anderson, a history teacher at Oscar Lathlin Collegiate on Opaskwayak Cree Nation, has a knack for breaking things down into easy-to-understand lessons.

"The Royal Proclamation is as foundational to the development of Canadian culture and governance as other pre-Confederation laws like the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Act of Union of 1841," she said.

As the Oct. 7 date nears for commemorating the 250th anniversary, Wyatt Anderson said this gives Canadians a fresh opportunity to view the law through a different prism.

"Without question, the Royal Proclamation established the template for future negotiations between government and First Nations," she said.

In fact, many believe the proclamation laid the groundwork for the "duty to consult" process, which is front and centre in any negotiations currently underway between First Nations and various levels of government.

The beautiful thing is that leading up to Oct. 7, Manitobans are embarking on an exercise to look back at the past with new eyes.

As part of the five-day celebration, Oct. 1-5, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has brought together 10 partners to host a descendent of Chief Pontiac. Best known for his role in leading Pontiac's Rebellion. The chief was eventually involved in negotiating the Treaty of Niagara and carried the highly prized wampum belt that was presented and worn to signify the ratification of the Royal Proclamation.

A public reception at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on Oct. 3 will kick off the event. The intent is to allow elders, historians and treaty spokespeople to share oral histories, which will allow participants to gain first-hand knowledge of the history we all share.

"Revisiting the Royal Proclamation gives us an opportunity to view it from today's standpoint, which is different from the 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century perspectives," said Wyatt Anderson. "It is enriched by today's perspectives and tells us a bit about our forefathers as well as their intentions and un-intentions."

She said it's like appreciating the Mona Lisa. "With each generation's new technology and viewpoints, we see a bit of ourselves in the interpretation -- sociologically and anthropologically. How we see it teaches us as much about ourselves, as what we see."

Seeing ourselves and understanding ourselves is an important step in building the relationship between First Nations people and all Canadians. The commemoration of the Royal Proclamation allows us to do just that so come join the conversation. Details at

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2013 A15

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