Today is a day which will challenge Indigenous peoples and Canadians in the ongoing and very uncomfortable decolonization process. Will people celebrate Oct.7, 2013 as the 250th year since the issuance of The Royal Proclamation of 1763? Or will Canadians and Indigenous peoples see beyond the government hype and propaganda that comes with celebrating the War of 1812 or the Royal Proclamation? Will most Canadians even know what the Royal Proclamation is or that it is a constitutionally-protected document? What is it that Idle No More activists all over the country are calling for – a celebration of the Royal Proclamation or something else?
In summary, the Royal Proclamation was issued in 1763 by King George III after the British Crown acquired lands claimed by the French in North America. It was intended to encourage settlement of North America by the British, even over lands formerly claimed as French. It was also intended to transition Indigenous peoples from French allegiances to British sovereignty. It further purported to establish reserved lands for Indigenous peoples in which they could to hunt and fish. Yet, these “protected” lands were still to be made available for settlement, so long as it was done according to the rules set out in the Proclamation.
While some argue that the Proclamation recognized Nationhood status of Indigenous peoples; partially protected Indigenous lands; and partially recognized Indigenous land rights; there are others who point out that Indigenous peoples were already living as strong, independent sovereign Nations prior to contact and did not need a British edict to declare partial recognition of land rights. The very essence of sovereignty is that it is lived, asserted, protected and defended every day – it cannot be granted or gifted by another sovereign.
If there was any question about whether we should be celebrating the Royal Proclamation, one need only refer to how the federal Minister of Indian Affairs Bernard Valcourt has been re-writing history.
Valcourt’s statement suggests that the Royal Proclamation was the beginning of the treaty process in Canada – which is false. The Mi’kmaw, Maliseet and Passmaquoddy were negotiating treaties in 1726, 1752, and 1760 etc. There is nothing about the Royal Proclamation that indicates that it is a mutually-agreed upon document signed by Indigenous Nations and Britain. Even Valcourt acknowledges that it was a unilaterally-imposed document where Britain purported to set out how the relationship would work with Indigenous Nations – with no input from Indigenous Nations. It is in fact, just a pronouncement that Britain violated more times than it followed.
Valcourt is also wrong when he states that it was the Royal Proclamation that led to the inclusion of section 35 in the Constitution Act, 1982. To the contrary, it was the efforts of Indigenous activists to try to find ways to protect our inherent rights. Sadly, section 35 turned out to be as much protection as the Royal Proclamation where Canada breaches it more than honours it. Section 35 has turned out to be a an empty shell of a constitutional promise which is used by Canada to deny First Nation rights under the guise of “consultation”. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is clear that the legal standard is “free, informed and prior consent” – not just a watered-down duty to talk and impose whatever laws or policies that suits government agendas.
So why then would we either celebrate the Royal Proclamation or base any of our resistance activities around it? Our resistance comes from our responsibility as Indigenous peoples to live, assert and defend our sovereignty and to protect the lands and waters we rely on to sustain our Nations and future generations. We should focus our symbols, inspiration, actions and rallying cries around our brave ancestors, their heroic efforts to protect our rights and the incredible inner strength of our peoples to resist and survive – despite everything that was done to us by the colonizers.
There are no more powerful people than ours. To have survived scalpings, biological warfare (smallpox blankets), forced sterilizations of our women, deaths and torture in residential schools, the theft of tens of thousands of our babies from our families, the over-imprisonment of our men and women, the hundreds of murdered, missing and traded Indigenous women, and the pre-mature deaths of our peoples from contaminated water, lack of food, over-crowded housing and poor health – is a testament to our strength.
Our culture and identity has the power to sustain us in difficult times and in my opinion, this is the core around which we should rise up and defend our lands, waters and peoples. The sooner we stop orienting ourselves around the laws, policies and media releases of the Canadian government, the stronger we will be in our resistance. Canada requires our participation in their processes to validate their ongoing oppression of our people – we can choose to withdraw and demand better.
Harper should not assume that because there are no flashy media events happening every day that First Nations are not acting. Every social movement goes through phases and whether you call it Idle No More, Indigenous Nationhood Movement, or general resistance, Indigenous peoples are making plans, strategizing, asserting and defending their sovereignty. Those actions are sometimes hard to see amongst the sea of political media releases, government propaganda, commentator rhetoric and co-opted organizations. That being said, we still have true leaders, wise elders, strong grassroots peoples and our ancestors who are walking with us. Despite all the challenges, this movement will just continue to grow, expose the uncomfortable truths and force the fundamental change that is needed to keep the status quo from killing our people.
Canadians will benefit from this process of decolonization too because the most valuable resources in the future will be farmable land and drinkable water and First Nations are on the front lines protecting them. Canadians have the power to help First Nations make life better for all of us – it’s as easy and making the choice.