By Terry Audla
King George III of Britain had a problem. There was unrest among the indigenous inhabitants of the land he had just conquered in war. Aboriginal relations, as they existed in George’s time, were brutal and unforgiving. So the King took a different approach — one he hoped would impose order and inject a note of fairness to the system. In the middle years of the 18th Century, this was no small thing.
This October, we mark the 250th anniversary of the King’s pronouncement, known as the “Royal Proclamation of 1763.” In doing so, we recognize our first real land claims policy, the foundation of two and a half centuries of treaty negotiation, and the birth of our relationship — as partners — with the Crown.
The Proclamation, delivered by the King on October 7, 1763, said that Aboriginal Peoples living adjacent to the lands occupied by the colonies “should not be molested or disturbed,” as these lands had not “been ceded to or purchased by us” and “are reserved to them as their hunting grounds.”
Furthermore, he recognized that “great frauds and abuses have been committed” against the original inhabitants, and he directed that no sale of Aboriginal occupied land could be carried out without prior assembly and approval of the peoples of that land.
In this manner, and beyond a line set by the Proclamation, he said, Aboriginal territory could be sold only to the Crown, which in turn would sell it to settlers at a tidy profit. This was a time of grand-scale pillage and plunder, remember. If you traded with the British you were used to receiving smallpox-infected blankets. So a newly imposed system of even reasonably fair exchange was significant, and remains so today.
As the American expansion began in earnest, the British moved westward too, negotiating treaties with Aboriginal Peoples in accordance with the rules set out in the Proclamation.
It should go without saying that the King had no concept of what constituted Inuit lands at that time, nor did he even gaze in our direction. “The northern boundary of the Proclamation extended from the Labrador border to the Great Lakes, so the King’s benevolent protection didn’t extend to Eskimos,” Zebedee Nungak wrote in the Winter 2011 issue of Inuktitut magazine.
But the Proclamation can be seen as the first legal recognition of the concept of Aboriginal rights and sovereignty, rights that are reaffirmed in the Constitution Act, 1982, and which duly extend to Inuit.
Inuit have embraced the treaty-making process wholeheartedly, and the basic rules of the 1700s guide our dealings today. The implementation of treaties is not so different from the negotiation of treaties, in that both processes should be mutually beneficial and rely on the goodwill and honesty of both sides to succeed.
Some 250 years ago, King George III of Britain defined, through a few well-chosen phrases and an abundance of diplomacy, the terms of a relationship that would endure for centuries. The most fitting testament to his legacy is no less than the fair and honourable implementation of the terms of the treaties that emerged from his historic Proclamation one day in 1763.