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In 1763, King George III of Britain signed the Royal Proclamation that was to be a binding document on the colonists and settlers in North America. The primary intent of this Proclamation was to protect Aboriginal people and the lands in which they lived. Under the Proclamation, all land west of the Appalachian Heights was for the sole use of the Indians. Indian people had sovereignty over these lands and expansion into them by colonists was strictly forbidden. "In Canada, the Proclamation is the basis of our understanding of the legal nature of Indian title and an historical root of the treaty process. Its provisions underlie the surrenders and designations of reserve land which still take place pursuant to the Indian Act". 1
Interestingly, the intent of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was to protect Aboriginal territories from being taken over by British settlers after the French and Indian Wars. The French, with whom most Aboriginal groups had sided during the war, were defeated and no longer in control of what happened to the lands and areas historically occupied by the Aboriginal people. Against the wishes of British colonists, King George III of Britain sided with the Indians, and protected their lands through the Royal Proclamation.
Most importantly, the Royal Proclamation laid out the absolute word of the Crown that no one was allowed to buy, trade, or in any other way gain land specifically set out as Indian Territory. The Crown alone would be allowed to negotiate with Indian people for changes to and purchases of their lands.
Additionally, the Royal Proclamation provided the basis for the development of Canada. The proclamation laid out the area of Quebec, which was already well settled and thriving, but increased tensions and problems between English and French colonists because of specific requirements laid out in the proclamation for office holders to swear allegiance to the Protestant Church. As well, the Quebec colonists were also very interested in getting into the land designated as Indian Territory. Generally, no one was particularly happy with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 outside of Britain.
While the intent of the Royal Proclamation was, at least in part, to preserve and protect land areas for Aboriginal people, the subsequent American Revolution rendered the Proclamation null and void in the lands that now constituted the United States. This created new and unexpected problems for the government of Canada. Once the American population was no longer under the control of Britain, there was no reason for them to remain out of the areas that were determined to be "Indian Territory." Western expansion was taken up with alacrity.
For the government of Canada, which was to be brought into being by the British North America Act of 1867, the diaspora of American citizens across the North American continent represented the potential for American expansion into the north. The Canadian government was determined to expand itself across the continent, the same as the Americans, and needed to move more quickly into the west. For Canada, this meant that negotiations between the Crown and the Aboriginal peoples would have to be undertaken, following the strictures of the Royal Proclamation as they now existed under the Indian Act.
The results of this race were the treaties negotiated in the Western territories that allowed the Canadian government to increase immigration and to populate the northwest before the Americans could spread into the area. While these actions prevented most of what is now Western Canada from becoming part of the United States, it created a completely new set of responsibilities for the government. The treaties had created a fiduciary relationship between First Nations peoples and the government of Canada. Part of that responsibility was for the education of Aboriginal children.
From the time of initial contact, European settlers and the governments that they created in Canada viewed Aboriginal people as savages - uncultured, uncivilized, and backward. It was believed that Aboriginal cultures were immature compared to European culture, and that to wait for these cultures to mature naturally would have devastating effects upon the people. According to an 1886 report, for example, "resource development and settlement had prevented Indian communities from following that course of evolution which has produced from the barbarian of the past the civilized man of today."
The government of Canada believed it was necessary to ensure that Aboriginal people were prepared to take a place as contributing citizens of the Canadian economic and social milieu. It was also believed that the current lifestyles of Aboriginal people prevented them from assuming that role as contributing citizens. As such, they determined that the best way to accomplish this goal was through education. As stated in the 1886 report:
The need for government intervention to liberate these savage people from the retrograde influence of a culture that could not cope with rapidly changing circumstances was pressing and obvious. Without it, the inspector continued, the Indian "must have failed and perished miserably and he would have died hard entailing expense and disgrace upon the Country." The exact point of intervention that would "force a change in [the Indian's] condition" was equally clear - "it is to the young that we must look for a complete change of condition."
Thus began the dark era in Canadian Aboriginal history known as the residential school system.