Does the Royal Proclamation apply to all Indigenous People in the Province of Quebec?

By Denys Delâge and Jean-Pierre Sawaya

Translated by Thomas Peace

On 24 December 1763 the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson, in the name of the British King George III, publicized the Royal Proclamation of 7 October 1763. In the weeks following Johnson’s announcement a paper copy was posted in the Catholic missions along the St. Lawrence Valley. In this way, Haudenosaunee, Algonquin, Nipissing, Wendat and Mi’kmaq peoples were informed of this edict. [1] Upon receiving notice of the Proclamation, the Algonquins and Nipissings demanded and received a signed copy of the Proclamation from John Johnson, the King’s representative in Montreal (and William Johnson’s son).[2] In taking this action, these communities demonstrated their understanding of the Proclamation as a formal promise that committed the Crown and its representatives to upholding its provisions.

Even after the Proclamation was posted in their villages, doubt remained about its universal application for Indigenous people living in Quebec. Did it apply to those people who, like the Haudenosaunee around Montreal, the Abenaki near Trois Rivières, and the Wendat at Lorette, had migrated into the St. Lawrence Valley during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries? William Johnson and Thomas Gage, the commander of British troops in North America, explicitly debated this issue in January 1764. Johnson believed that the British should distinguish between Indigenous people who had lived in the region from time immemorial and those whom the French invited to the colony and served as mercenaries protecting the colony from English attack (“Caghnawagas Abenaquis &ca [Hurons]”). The latter, he believed, had no claim to territory in the colony. If ever a claim was to be made, it would be through the prerogatives of the crown and not a function of Aboriginal title.[3]

Thomas Gage agreed with Johnson’s distinction between Indigenous people who occupied the land from time immemorial and those who immigrated during the colonial period. He emphasized that title to land remained valid for the first group because the King of France had never purchased their territory and French settlers only settled where they received prior authorization from their Indigenous neighbours.[4]

After this time, however, British officials differed in their interpretation. In fact, in their correspondence  and meetings with Indigenous leaders, British authorities determined that the Royal Proclamation applied to all Indigenous people in Quebec. It protected everyone equally.

Guy Carleton, the governor of Quebec, was the first person to confirm that all Indigenous people in Quebec held these rights. He made this most clear in an address to the Haudenosaunee in 1767:

The Abenaki Natives of St. François, as well as all other Nations and Tribes dependent on [the government of] the Province of Quebec being under the protection of His Majesty, who in his Proclamation of 7 October 1763 assured that we would keep them in their just rights and that the government would rigorously pursue justice against all those who dared molest them in any manner. We hope that the present will serve as a warning for all of those with this intention, and may prevent the negative consequence that could result. [5]

By including reference to “Nations and Tribes dependent on the province of Quebec,” Carleton emphasized that this document applied to all Indigenous people living along the St. Lawrence Valley. The term ‘molest’ in this context refers to a broader sense of disrespect for Indigenous rights. According to Carleton, then, the Proclamation applied to all Indigenous people in the region regardless of whether they had immigrated to the Valley during the colonial period.

Another question remains to be addressed, however.  What about the Innu (Montagnais) whose territory around the Saguenay and Lac Saint-Jean became the King’s Domain? Daniel Claus, an official in the Indian Department, judged that this territory was included as part of the Proclamation. [6] This was confirmed by Quebec’s Legislative Council in 1766. [7]

Aboriginal title therefore was valid because it was never effectively extinguished by the French crown. It covers all of the present-day territory of the Province of Quebec and includes all Indigenous people living within that region regardless of the age of their communities.

Denys Delâge is an emeritus professor at Université Laval. Jean-Pierre Sawaya is a history and heritage consultant.

This week ActiveHistory.ca will be running a special series of 14 essays jointly published with the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies commemorating the 250th anniversary of the 1763 Royal Proclamation on 7 October. A full list of essays in this collection can be found here.

[1] Jean-Baptiste D’Estimauville, Québec, 10 January 1797, RG 8, Reel C-2848, vol. 250, pt. 1, p. 66; William Van Felson to James Murray, Bonaventure, 10 February 1765, RG 4 A 1, vol. 12, pp. 4564-4565.

[2] William Johnson, “By the King A Proclamation, Given under my Hand and Seal at Arms, at Johnson-Hall, the 24th Day of December 1763,” The Papers of Sir William Johnson (JP), vol. 10, p. 985; “A Proclamation by the Honorable Sir William Johnson,” Johnson Hall, 24 December 1763, RG 8, Reel C-2855, vol. 267, p. 121.

[3] William Johnson to Thomas Gage, Johnson Hall, 27 January 1764, JP, vol. 4, pp. 307-308.

[4] Thomas Gage to William Johnson, New York, 6 February 1764, JP, vol. 4, p. 318.

[5] Guy Carleton, Quebec, 28 February 1767, MG 19 F1, reel C-1483, vol. 21, pt. 2, pp. 54-55. This quotation has been translated from Delâge and Sawaya’s text not the original.

[6] Daniel Claus to John Johnson, Montreal, 25 August 1766, MG 19, F1, reel C-1481, vol. 14, pt. 1, pp. 108-109.

[7] “Extrait des minutes de la réunion du comité ad hoc du Conseil législatif de Tadoussac,” 11 October 1766, CO 42, vol. 5, fol. 314-318, cited in Nelson-Martin Dawson, Lendemains de conquête au Royaume du Saguenay, Montréal, Nuit blanche, 1996, pp. 276-281.

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