First Nations in Canada were here when European newcomers arrived. They were not conquered, and they did not give up their lands. In Manitoba, First Nations did not surrender who they are as a people and define their relationship with the Crown through negotiated Treaties.
The Government of Canada is obligated to uphold ‘the honour of the Crown,’ which requires the federal government to act with honour, integrity, good faith, and fairness in all dealings with First Nations.
Three critical touchpoints that highlight this relationship are the Royal Proclamation, 1763, the Treaty of Niagara, and the Peguis-Selkirk Treaty.
While the Royal Proclamation is not a Treaty between the Crown and First Nations, it has far-reaching implications and helped set the stage for making the Numbered Treaties.
Between 1756 and 1763, Britain and France were engulfed in the Seven Years War, and a global conflict spilled into North America, where both countries had colonial empires. The war ended in February 1763. A short eight months later, on October 7, King George III of Great Britain issued a Royal Proclamation to organize the governance of newly claimed, and previously held, territory in North America and the Caribbean.
The Royal Proclamation was a sweeping document with largescale ramifications. One-third of its text is dedicated to First Nations, and much of it is connected directly to Treaties.
The Royal Proclamation assumes ‘ownership’ of North America to King George III and Great Britain. Additionally, the Proclamation explicitly states that First Nation title exists and that all land was First Nation land until ceded by Treaty.
The Proclamation also set the process for Treaty-making between the Crown and First Nations. It states:
• Treaty-making was to involve the presence of both parties, First Nations and the Crown
• There was to be some form of consent between the parties
• First Nations were to be compensated for any transfer of lands or resources.
Today, the Royal Proclamation is referenced in Section 25 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
The Royal Proclamation was drafted by colonial powers and embedded with Western worldviews. However, First Nations across North America soon assembled to prepare their response.
In July and August 1764, about 2,000 First Nations chiefs gathered at Fort Niagara in present-day southern Ontario to meet with the British superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. The First Nations leadership represented 24 Nations from as far east as Nova Scotia, from as far north as Hudson Bay, and from as far west as the prairies, including Manitoba.
The Treaty of Niagara was solidified with the presentation of wampum to Superintendent Johnson. The agreement was based on peace, friendship, and respect and set out a framework for First Nations and British co-existence on Turtle Island. The Treaty-making process included the reading aloud of the Royal Proclamation, thus moving it from the formality of written text to a living relationship.
Less than 50 years later, honouring the principles of the Treaty of Niagara, First Nations provided enormous support for the British during the War of 1812 with the Americans. Acting as allies with the British forces, they helped to repel American advances and paved the way for the growth of Canada as an independent country in 1867.
In 1811, despite operating on the ancestral lands of First Nations, the Hudson’s Bay Company issued a land grant to company shareholder Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk. At the time, the Bay maintained its commercial monopoly in Rupert’s Land, a landmass consisting of the entire Hudson Bay drainage basin.
Selkirk aimed to resettle displaced and impoverished farmers from Scotland and Ireland to the District of Assiniboia in present-day southern Manitoba. In 1812 the first settlers arrived at the Red River Colony. Subsequent parties of colonists followed in 1813, 1814, and 1815.
Upon seeing an influx of a different kind of newcomer – settler farmers rather than fur traders – Anishinaabe Chief Peguis approached Selkirk with a Treaty. The Treaty, signed by five Chiefs, four Anishinaabe and one Ininiw, set aside farmland two miles back on either side of the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers for the settlers. The agreement was one to share the land – not a sale.
The Peguis-Selkirk Treaty of 1817 asserted First Nation’s sovereignty, ownership of the land, and the willingness to share so all involved could have a better future. The land-sharing aspect made the Peguis-Selkirk Treaty distinct in Canada’s history and further set the tone for the Treaty-making that followed.