Harper’s Meeting With The Chiefs Has Deep Constitutional Roots


By Peter Russell

There was a remarkable historical precedent for Prime Minister Harper’s meeting with Grand Chief Atleo and other Indian chiefs last week.

In July 1764, Sir William Johnson, King George III’s personal envoy to native nations in North America, on the grounds of Fort Niagara met with 2000 chiefs and sachems representing indigenous nations from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River.

These native leaders were very angry. Sir William’s challenge was to make constructive peace with them.

A year earlier, Pontiac, the great Odawa chief, led a confederacy of nations across the St. Clair River and laid siege to Fort Detroit, the former French fort which the British had taken over after the fall of New France.

News of Pontiac’s uprising spread like wildfire, and within a few weeks Aboriginal nations attacked the eight other forts west of Detroit.

Many of these forts were burnt to the grounds. Native warriors with shock and awe raided settlements along the western frontier of the American colonies.

The Aboriginal nations were up in arms because they greatly feared the consequences of the British replacing the French as the dominant European power north and west of the 13 colonies.

Unlike the French, whose main interest was the fur trade, the British promoted settlement and farming.

Aboriginal leaders were fed up with English settlers as they moved westward helping themselves to their land without proper treaties.

In the Peace of Paris that ended the Seven Years War in 1763, France had handed over its North American territory to Great Britain.

When news of this reached native communities, they were enraged.

What business, they asked, did France have handing over their lands to the British?

The British monarch, George III, on the advice of Sir William Johnson, had issued a Royal Proclamation on October 7, 1763, which his government hoped would serve as a basis for making peace with the Indian nations.

The first half of the proclamation set out how the British would govern the colonies of Quebec, East and West Florida and Grenada, that they had taken over from the French.

The second half covered the relationship Britain hoped to have with the Indians.

It is those final six paragraphs of the 1763 Royal Proclamation which, a year later at Niagara, Sir William Johnson hoped would secure peace with the Indians.

This part of the Proclamation began by addressing “the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whome We are connected.”

There was no suggestion that the British would govern these nations.

Their political independence was fully respected.

The Proclamation went on to recognize the Indian nations' ownership of their lands and made the crucial commitment that the British government would allow settlement only on lands that had been ceded or purchased by the Crown through proper treaties.

After four days of discussion, in an elaborate ceremony, these conditions became the basis for the leaders of 24 native nations joining Sir William Johnson in a Great Covenant Chain (alliance or treaty) as a foundation for a peaceful and mutually respectful relationship between their nations and Great Britain.

Now, lest you think this is just ancient history, take a look at section 25 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which recognizes the “rights and freedoms that pertain to the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, including any rights and freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation of October7, 1763; and any rights or freedoms that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired.”

The Treaty of Niagara, as the Great Covenant Chain came to be called,  negotiated nearly a quarter of a millennium ago by Sir William Johnson and a large group of Indian nations was, in effect, Canada’s first Confederation.

The principles that it embodies - respect for Indian nations as self-governing political communities, aboriginal title to traditional lands and treaties as the process for working out how to share the land and its resources with newcomers in mutually beneficial ways-  remain the foundation for the relationship with Aboriginal people that serves us – all of us - best.

So, it is good to hear that Prime Minister Harper, following in the footsteps of Sir William Johnson, will work with Aboriginal leaders on implementing old treaties and forging new ones in the form of comprehensive land and government agreements.

We got away from that relationship for much too long.

Coming back to it will not be easy and will not produce instant solutions.

But it is the right path to follow.

Peter Russell is one of Canada's leading constitutional experts, advisor to Governors-General and Professor-Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Toronto.  

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : January 15, 2013

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