By Michelle Hope Rumford
The undertaking of “commemoration” encompasses actions taken in a spirit of remembrance and honor. Choosing to commemorate acknowledges the importance of an event. It allows history to live on into present contexts. In the context of the continuous formation and re-evaluation of the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian government, 2013 was marked by a series of commemorations of the 1763 Royal Proclamation. But 2014 rings in the 250th anniversary of an event whose importance ought not be overlooked: The Treaty of Niagara. In this post, I use the 1764 Treaty of Niagara to reflect on The Creating Canada symposium, one of the largest and most significant events marking the commemoration of the Royal Proclamation.
Ratified in 1764, the Treaty is closely tied to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which was recently commemorated in October of last year. Described by scholar John Borrows as a gathering at which “a nation to nation relationship between settler and First Nation peoples was renewed and extended, and the Covenant Chain of Friendship, a multi-nation alliance in which no member gave up their sovereignty, was affirmed”, this event marked the transformation of the Royal Proclamation (a unilateral declaration from the British monarch) into a treaty between European and Indigenous nations (“Constitutional Law from a First Nation Perspective: Self-Government and The Royal Proclamation”, 20).
The attention Borrows has drawn to the Treaty of Niagara demonstrates the importance and benefits of incorporating First Nations peoples’ perspectives into “legal scholarship involving First Nation issues” (2). This reinterpretation breaks out of one-sided colonial frameworks of history and the law, allowing for a more well-rounded perspective and understanding of the past. Applying this approach to the act of commemoration would provide a fair and comprehensive understanding of the event being remembered, and avoid what one might call “selective memory”.
Indeed this approach might have been useful at last October’s Creating Canada symposium. The goal of the symposium was to commemorate the Royal Proclamation of 1763 by recognizing and discussing its role in Canadian law. As developed in ActiveHistory.ca’s theme week on the Proclamation, this document set the founding principles for Crown-First Nations relations, and continues to shape Indigenous-Government relations today.
The symposium attracted a variety of people, including Aboriginal leaders, academics, lawyers, civil servants, activists and the public. Though the hosts – the co-chairs of the Land Claims Agreement Coalition – were Indigenous people, the majority of voices speaking and presenting over the course of the day were not. They were, rather, experts of history, law, and politics. Aboriginal voices were restricted to certain topics, and the authority of the Proclamation was asserted with little questioning. The symposium was wrought with formalities, introductions and addresses, suits and ties, question and answer periods with particular experts, and the Aboriginal contributions and expressions seemed fairly foreign and secondary in this context.
Many perspectives and facets of the Proclamation were explored in the presentations, including its historical context, its legal implications, its use in treaty-making processes, and its impacts on Quebec and the United States; these discussions remained within Western frameworks of thought and understanding, and the original and continuing authority of the Royal Proclamation was implied without questioning. First Nations voices were included only in the context of discussions of modern treaties; historical context and legality was left to be interpreted through the eyes of non-Aboriginal North American and British scholars, leaving behind the perspectives of Aboriginal peoples surrounding their relationship and interactions with the Royal Proclamation, as well as those of their ancestors.
In his presentation about the effects of the proclamation on Quebec, Ghislain Otis, Canada Research Chair on Native Peoples and Legal Diversity, raised the point that Crown sovereignty was never debated on the basis of discovery – and through the rest of the scholarly presentations it is evident that there is a tension in its authority, but it was still not openly questioned. Brian Slattery, a Professor of Law at York University, used the imagery of a tree in explaining the Royal Proclamation, and identified one of the major branches in its canopy to be federalism. He identified what he calls the “imperial wishful thinking” in its commands, claiming dominion that was not reflected in interactions on the ground. The other three branches of land rights, treaties, and economic participation and prosperity were established on the terms of King George III, with no input of the people in question – but perhaps that’s because he didn’t believe them to be people. Slattery went on to state that the proclamation “still stands as a beacon of harmony and cooperation” – but to who? Sovereignty, land rights, dominion, authority; all these concepts were discussed in the Western understanding. This is again where the perspectives of Aboriginal peoples and their ancestors, as well as the context and significance of the Treaty of Niagara, would shine light on the viability of this document and its various dimensions.
A taste of these perspectives framed the proceedings of the event, with the opening prayer and closing words of two strong Aboriginal women; their stories, and the stories of their ancestors. The day opened with a prayer led by Claudette Commanda, an Algonquin woman whose ancestors have lived for hundreds of years on the lands on which the symposium took place; her words were powerful as she emphasized the importance of remembering ancestors and protecting the land for generations to come. She recalled a promise she made to her grandfather to welcome people to their lands with open arms and friendship. Though seemingly peaceful and obliging, this opening made a strong political statement about land ownership, and proved already the lack of implementation of the very document being commemorated:
We do further strictly enjoin and require all Persons whatever, who have either willfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any Lands within the Countries above described, or upon any other Lands, which, not having been ceded to, or purchased by Us, are still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such Settlements – The Royal Proclamation of 1763
The very lands she welcomed the organizers and audience members to were comprised of unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory.
But not only did the proceedings commence with a presentation that should raise questions of implementation, it finished with a story questioning the logic and legitimacy of such a document as the 1763 Royal Proclamation. One of the co-chairs, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. Cathy Towtongie, shared a story from 1982 in Rankin Inlet, when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans stopped Inuit hunters killing narwhales for food without consideration of the quota system. As she interpreted between the hunters and the authorities, who included members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the hunters asked the officers by what authority they had the right to stop them. She tried to explain their response of “The Royal Proclamation of 1763” commencing with “across the ocean, King George wrote…”. The rest of her story, how the hunters, elders, and people of the community eventually chased out the RCMP, gave the audience a taste of the strangeness of such a concept of the commands of the King across the water, and the disconnect between the realms of legality and reality. She stated that the Royal Proclamation is part of the foundation of Canada, but that this foundation is “fundamentally flawed”. Cathy Towtongie’s closing words brought the proceedings of the day into question, as she left the audience with the resounding question of whether The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is truly a document deserving of commemoration.
The opening and closing statements gave glimpses of the very real tensions coming forth from this historical document and its anniversary. Similarly, in his comments about modern treaties, Grand Chief of the Grand Council of Crees, Matthew Coon Come, emphasized that “self-government” doesn’t solve everything. Modern treaties can be a tool to further disenfranchise their peoples if not implemented. He went as far as saying there is “a long way to go” on their proper implementation.
These statements, however, did not give breadth to the voices of people living under the treaties and affected by their implementation – or lack thereof. These perspectives surfaced over the course of the day, but only in the form of stories told by bold audience members who chose during Question and Answer periods to use the platform to share their concerns; loss of hunting rights and access to clean water, hydro projects disrupting their livelihoods, and unfulfilled promises. Their voices had a moment to be heard, but they were not assigned authority or prominence in the conversation.
Though Euro-Canadian scholarly understandings have their place in the discussion of the Royal Proclamation, the perspectives of those directly affected by the document, as well as those of their ancestors, lend an important tension that should shape actions taken by leaders and governments. But instead, their stories easily fell back into the shadows unless one chose to ponder the uncomfortable realities surrounding the Proclamation. After all, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 is, in the words of Victoria Freeman, “a unilateral attempt to deal with Indigenous-settler-Crown relations by royal edict.” First Nations stories, histories, and legal perspectives would have provided a more well-rounded conversation that presented Nations as equals not only in forming modern treaties, but also in the shaping of the stories of Canada past and present.
Commemoration calls history into the present, revisiting the past, shaping collective memory in its content and reflecting relational dynamics in its format. The Creating Canada symposium presented a framework of commemoration that left out important contextualizing factors and events of the First Nations peoples, and left behind the valuable input of those living in the realities created by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. As the 250th anniversary of the Treaty of Niagara is upon us, the opportunity is presented to reopen understandings of the Royal Proclamation, the First Nations frameworks within which it was established, and move past the legalities and open our eyes to the realities of its implementation.
Michelle Hope Rumford is an Anthropology and Aboriginal Studies student and a member of the Coordinating Circle of the Indigenous and Canadian Studies Student Association (ICSSA) at the University of Ottawa.