The Royal Proclamation of 1763

  • This document was issued by King George III of Britain sought to prevent further racial violence, explicitly recognizes First Nations sovereignty and title in North America; First Nations land ownership and authority are recognized by the British Crown. It states that only the Crown, in a public meeting, could acquire lands from First Nations thus, the Crown became the only agency with the right to negotiate land transfers from First Nations to the government, and then to the colonists. The Proclamation established British protection over unsettled land belonging to Indian tribes and recognized Indian title to lands not already colonized. By forbidding colonists (and other European Nations) from trespassing on Native lands, the British government hoped to avoid more conflicts like Pontiac’s Rebellion. The “Indian Nations” were to govern the Proclamation Territory (Also, known on the maps at the time as the Anishinaabe Territory) under their own laws. The proclamation was largely ignored by Settlers of the Thirteen Colonies, in particular in settlements already established in the prohibited area, but its very existence created a large amount of resentment among the British colonists that it would eventually lead to the Independence of the United States of America.

In Canada, the Proclamation is considered to be one of the strongest guarantees of First Nations’ land rights. Pre-existing land ownership was acknowledged and is a very important legal concept today. The Royal Proclamation describes the basis for the historical and modern day Treaties. It defines Canada’s special relationship with First Nations people and sets out the basis in law for First Nations land title and other rights. And though it is not part of Canada’s current Constitution, the Proclamation is referred to specifically in Section 25 of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Proclamation was referred to by Justice Gwynne in St. Catharine’s Milling Case of 1888 as the “Indian Bill of Rights,” it is often referred to since then as an “Indian Magna Carta (Indian Charter),” and has been held by the courts to have “the force of a statute which has been never repealed”, which is to say, it is still in effect and it’s going to be part of our legal landscape for a long time to come.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 recognized that:

  • A Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Crown and First Nations
  • It presents the First Nations in terms of allies, rather than as British subjects
  • First Nations people lived on their traditional lands and are self-governing Nations
  • Interest in those lands belonged to Nations, not individuals (Collective Rights)
  • Only the Crown could buy or accept First Nations lands
  • The Crown generally required an agreement to obtain lands from First Nations people
  • Guarantees of First Nations sovereignty and their way of life are not to be interfered with
  • First Nations people were under the Crown’s protection
  • And, it established a foundation for all future land negotiations between First Nations and the Crown and their Governments.

The Royal Proclamation along with the subsequent Treaty of Niagara, provide for an argument that “discredits the claims of the Crown to exercise sovereignty over First Nations” and affirms Indigenous “powers of self-determination in, among other things, allocating lands through treaties.” Further so, the Royal Proclamation outlined a policy in which to protect Indigenous rights and in doing so, recognized these rights existed.

In Canada, the Proclamation is the basis of our understanding of legal nature of Indian title and is the historical root of the treaty process and the building foundations of Canada.

“The Royal Proclamation,” writes historian Colin Calloway, “reflected the notion that segregation not interaction [French] should [now] characterize Indian-white relations.”

It was at the height of the Pontiac Rebellion that British Lord, General Jeffrey Amherst secured his place in history with the deliberate introduction of the first act of modern biological warfare (infected smallpox blankets, etc.) in North America on First Nation peoples, including against his allies, “You will do well to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” An officer, stationed at Fort Pitt, presented to Native leaders with a “gift” of blankets and handkerchiefs taken from a smallpox hospital which triggered an epidemic