Charles III greeting dignitaries in the House of Lords in December 2022.
Charles III greeting dignitaries in the House of Lords in December 2022. Credit: ukhouseoflords / Flickr Credit: ukhouseoflords / Flickr

Canadians do not seem overly excited about the coronation of King Charles III.

This writer was not quite six-years-old when Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, an event that captured the imagination of Canadians far more than does this year’s crowning of Elizabeth’s oldest son. 

Back in the early 1950s, it was not technically feasible to broadcast the coronation live on television here in Canada. So, they did the next best thing. They filmed it all, shipped the film across the Atlantic, and broadcast the coronation, after the fact, on the still-very-new CBC television network.

They also showed it in schools. 

To this day, I remember my thrilled anticipation when told we were going to see a movie in our school cafeteria. I had never seen a movie (or television for that matter), and expected something great, like Mickey Mouse. 

The stilted and incomprehensible images from faraway London were a crushing disappointment. Totally boring.

Notwithstanding one kid’s indifference however, Canadians in the 1950s were pretty pro-monarchy. There was little public talk back then about ending Canada’s connection to this archaic symbol of privilege and entitlement. 

Today, it is unlikely many Canadians would object if Canada became a republic. 

Some used to argue the monarchy somehow kept us from becoming even more Americanized than we are. 

These days few would assert what makes us distinct from the U.S. is a British imperial symbol. 

Canada’s unique identity is rather based on our official bilingualism, on such distinct institutions as the CBC, on our willingness to control firearms, and on our more-robust-than-the-Americans’ social safety net, which includes generous parental leave provisions and a universal, public health insurance system.

Those are real Canadian assets, not empty symbols.

1763 Royal Proclamation – what did it really mean?

There is, however, one group in Canada which still feels a special attachment to the Crown: Indigenous leaders (or, at least, a good many of them).

For Indigenous people in Canada the relationship with the British monarchy goes back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763. 

Following the Seven Years War between Britain and France (1756 to 1763), in which the British prevailed, King George III issued a proclamation. Its purpose was, mostly, to establish British, English-speaking political and administrative control over all the Empire’s holdings in North America, especially areas that had once been part of the French Empire.

It is a political, strategic statement, an assertion of British imperial power. 

READ MORE: Passing of Queen leaves complicated legacy for First Nations

But key for Indigenous people is the section of the Proclamation that states: 

“… the several Nations or Tribes of Indians, with whom We are connected, and who live under Our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to, or purchased by Us, are reserved to them …”

Tangibly, the Proclamation established a boundary at the edge of what was then European settlement. It ruled that individual white settlers could not establish colonies beyond that line; only the Crown itself could claim any of that territory.

In what is now the United States, where there were legions of would-be settlers hungry for new land, this edict was not popular. Some historians see it as a contributing cause to the American Revolution.

Following the success of the Revolution, the Proclamation was no longer valid in the U.S. A setters’ boom ensued, accompanied by the massive expulsion and extermination of Indigenous tribes.

In Canada, the Proclamation remained officially in force, although white settlers often defied it by encroaching on what was officially Indigenous territory.

The current Canadian government view is that the Proclamation established the basis for the treaty-making process. That is why we have the so-called numbered treaties, covering a large part of Canadian territory, although far from all of it .

The truth is, though, that more than 250 years ago, the Proclamation was not a ringing endorsement of aboriginal title to land or right to self-government. It was an instrument of geo-politics.

King George III issued the Proclamation primarily for the purpose of buying the loyalty of First Nations who had been allied with the French.

The British authorities also wanted to maintain control of matters and head off massive land-grabbing and speculation by prospective settlers.

IN 1982, when the Canadian Constitution was amended to include a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it made reference to the Royal Proclamation in the section dealing with aboriginal rights.

The fact that there was any reference at all in the Charter to Canada’s First Nations was only the result of intense pressure at the 11th hour from First Nations leaders.

First Nations were excluded from the constitutional negotiations that led to the Charter (and the new constitutional amending formula).

Those talks were limited to the 10 (white, male) provincial premiers and Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. But because of aboriginal leaders’ pressure, the ‘white’ leaders made a very reluctant, backhand, begrudging and last-minute concession.

They included a clause stating that the rights guaranteed by the Charter “shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal, treaty or other rights,” and specifically mentioned “rights or freedoms that have been recognized by the Royal Proclamation.”

A litany of failed attempts to redefine ‘Crown-First Nations’ relationship

Following the formal adoption of the 1982 constitutional changes, the federal government and the provinces made a number of half-hearted moves toward giving tangible meaning to the vague commitments on aboriginal rights in the Charter.

Pierre Trudeau asked northern Ontario MP Keith Penner to chair a special commission that came up with far reaching recommendations for genuine First Nations self-government.

Following that, there was a series of First Ministers’ and First Nations leaders’ conferences on self-government that, in the end, went nowhere.

A majority of provinces were dead-set against anything that would — even potentially — diminish their powers or their total control over natural resources.

There were other failed attempts at redefining what we now call the “Crown-First Nations” relationship — notably the failed Charlottetown Accord and the as-yet-unheeded recommendations of the Brian Mulroney-appointed Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

In the meantime, conditions for too many First Nations people have continued to fester.

Today’s First Nations’ leaders do not see the Proclamation and their relationship with the Crown through rose-coloured glasses. 

They only expect the new King to be more aware of the true story of Indigenous peoples in Canada than were his predecessors. We know Charles III has an interest in social justice and environmental issues.

But Indigenous leaders would be well-advised to keep their expectations low. 

The Royal Family might have lots of money and property, and accompanying privilege, but they are, nonetheless, virtually powerless. They are human symbols, not political actors.

True power lies with elected politicians – and the powerful business interests who spend millions funding and lobbying them.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...