The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued by King George III to establish a basis of government administration in the North American territories formally ceded by France to Britain in the Treaty of Paris, 1763, following the Seven Years' War. It established the constitutional framework for the negotiation of treaties with the Aboriginal inhabitants of large sections of Canada, and is referenced in section 25 of the Constitution Act, 1982. As such, it has been labelled an "Indian Magna Carta" or an "Indian Bill of Rights." The Proclamation is also significant because of its contribution to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775; as it legally defined a large area of the North American interior as a vast Indian reserve, it angered inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies, many of whom desired expansion to the west.

Key Provisions

King George's Proclamation became a key legal instrument for the establishment of colonial governments in the Province of Quebec, East Florida, West Florida, and Grenada. It also defined the legal status of a large area in the North American interior as a vast Indian reserve. The eastern boundary of this territory, which explicitly excluded the colony of Québec and the lands of the Hudson's Bay Company, was set along the heights of the Appalachian mountain range. The western border was not specifically described. These special provisions to acknowledge and protect some rights of the Aboriginal peoples in the North American interior were made in recognition of the fighting power they collectively represented.

The Proclamation Line

By holding out to First Nations the promise of a degree of security as the sole authorized inhabitants of a large part of their ancestral lands, the British government was trying to stabilize the western frontier of the old crown colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. The decision to formalize this limited but important recognition of Aboriginal rights was hastened by news that a number of Aboriginal warriors under Ottawa Chief Pontiac had defied crown rule over their lands by briefly seizing several British military posts that had recently been captured from the French. To imperial authorities, this underlined the self-interested wisdom of giving First Nations a degree of protection from the land-grabbing expansionism of frontiersmen along the western borders of the Thirteen Colonies. They hoped that this would inspire First Nations people, many of whom had recently fought against the British as allies of the French, to accept British rule in the area. The implications of doing otherwise, and of thereby incurring an enormous expense for the maintenance of law and order in the North American interior, were unthinkable to the parsimonious officials responsible for the strategic defence of the British Empire.

King George reserved the western lands to the "several nations or tribes of Indians" that were under his "protection" as their exclusive "hunting grounds." As sovereign of this territory, however, the king claimed ultimate "Dominion" over the entire region. He further prohibited any private person from directly buying the interest of Aboriginal groups in their ancestral soil. Instead, he reserved this exclusive right of purchase for himself and his heirs alone. As detailed in the Proclamation, he set out a procedure whereby an Aboriginal group, if they freely chose, could sell their land rights to properly authorized representatives of the British monarch. This could only take place at some public meeting called especially for the purpose. This established the constitutional basis for the future negotiation of Aboriginal treaties in British North America. The Royal Proclamation thereby established the British Crown as the essential central agent in the transfer of Indian lands to colonial settlers.

Contribution to the American Revolution

Although it proved virtually impossible for imperial authorities to monitor the western boundaries of the Thirteen Colonies at the Royal Proclamation line, repeated efforts were made to limit colonial settlement in those lands reserved for the Indigenous population. Outrage in the Thirteen Colonies against this imperial policy was one of the factors responsible for the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775.

The Proclamation and Treaty-Making

The first systematic attempts to enforce the treaty-making provisions of the Royal Proclamation took place in the regions north of the Great Lakes, which became designated as Upper Canada in 1791. The treaty-making procedures that evolved in this crown colony were later exported to the territories purchased in 1870 by the new Dominion from the Hudson's Bay Company (Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory).

Although these regions had been specifically designated in 1763 as outside the jurisdictional framework established by the Royal Proclamation, Canadian government officials recognized that the Aboriginal peoples of the newly annexed territory had the same rights to their unceded ancestral lands as First Nations in Upper Canada prior to the negotiation of treaties. Hence a basis of land tenure was established throughout most of the prairie provinces and Northern Ontario, where seven numbered treaties were negotiated in the 1870s, on the principles outlined in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

Constitution Inclusion and Debate

The Royal Proclamation tends to come under close scrutiny whenever there is cause to examine the legal character of Aboriginal land title. For example, the St. Catharine's Milling case of 1889 was used to settle a constitutional dispute between the governments of Ontario and the young Dominion; during the case, lawyers for the Ontario government argued that the Royal Proclamation was of no force in the legal elaboration of Aboriginal rights. However, in 1973, Supreme Court judge Emmett Hall expressed quite a different view of the Proclamation. Responding to a case involving the territorial rights of the Nisga'a nation, he found that the basic principles of the Royal Proclamation were generally applicable in British Columbia, where most of the land remains uncovered by Aboriginal treaties. If Mr. Justice Hall's view was technically correct, the implications of his decision are that Aboriginal land rights are legally enforceable over other large areas of the country such as the Yukon, the eastern Arctic, parts of Québec, and the Maritime provinces. In these regions, the treaty-making provisions of the Royal Proclamation have never been implemented.

It remains to be seen, therefore, whether the principles of the Royal Proclamation have constitutional application to all of Canada or only to parts of the country. Another question to be faced is whether the Proclamation is itself the source of Aboriginal land rights, or whether it merely acknowledges and confirms pre-existing rights. The Proclamation is referred to in section 25 of the Constitution Act, 1982. This provision details that there is nothing in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms to diminish the rights and freedoms that are recognized as those of Aboriginal peoples by the Royal Proclamation. This reference to the Proclamation in the Constitution Act assures that its interpretation will remain an important part of any attempt to clarify the precise character of Aboriginal rights in Canadian law.

See also Aboriginal Rights; Aboriginal Treaties; Land Claims