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Keeping Promises: The Royal Proclamation of 1763, Aboriginal Rights, and Treaties in Canada

By Terry Fenge and Jim Aldridge, Editors

Review By Hamar Foster

March 26, 2016

BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016-2017  | p. 149-150

In their introduction to Keeping Promises, the editors express the hope that its essays are “easy to read and accessible to the public” (6). As someone who has been keenly interested in these issues for more than forty years, I may not be the best judge of whether the authors have met this standard, but, by and large, I think they have. The essays range over all the three topics in the subtitle, they are all well written, and although they contain the inevitable errors that plague any and every publication, these are minor and relatively few. I must mention just one of these, a howler at 242n (chapter 11), where the author of the comparative essay on the Alaska and Canadian land claim settlements confuses the late Mel Smith, the author of the anti-land claims tract Our Home or Native Land?, with former British Columbia attorney general Brian Smith. (Mind you, in the 1980s their views, like their names, were not that dissimilar). Most importantly, each essay is a competent and, for the most part, compact summary of its subject, from the origins of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 (chapters 3-7) to the challenges of treaty negotiation and implementation in the twenty-first century (chapters 8-11). The book also contains the text of the Royal Proclamation itself and the Nisga’a Petition of 1913 as appendices.

This useful collection should be of particular interest to readers of BC Studies because although only one of the essays is specifically about British Columbia (chapter 9 on the Nisga’a Treaty), most of the essays cannot avoid addressing the BC context. The reason is simple. From the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Calder case in 1973 to its equally important decision in the Tsilhqot’in case in 2014, the law of Aboriginal rights and title in this country has been built in large part from BC material. The list of case names — Guerin (1984), Sparrow (1990), Gladstone (1996), Delgamuukw (1997), Haida (2004), etc. — may be familiar only to lawyers, but the point remains: one cannot write about Aboriginal rights and title in Canada without discussing British Columbia.

For the historically minded, five of the essays are of particular interest. Brian Slattery, as always with his writing, provides a concise and lucid account, here of the Royal Proclamation’s constitutional status, as does Mark Walters from a slightly different perspective (chapters 3 and 5). Colin Calloway’s essay on the Proclamation’s origins and fate south of the border covers a great deal of history efficiently and engagingly (chapter 4). Ghislain Otis provides, especially for Anglophones, a much-needed explanation of the impact of the Proclamation on Quebec, both in 1763 and today (chapter 6). Finally, Jim Miller has written an excellent précis of his book on treaty making from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries (chapter 7).

I began this review by stating that the essays in Keeping Promises are, on the whole, accessible and readable, but one thing does surprise me. I could find no mention of The Royal Proclamation in Historical Context, a 32-page pamphlet published by the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies in the fall of 2013 to commemorate, as Keeping Promises does, the 250th anniversary of the Proclamation. Because of the shortness of the fourteen essays it contains, this collection is even more readable than Keeping Promises and is certainly more accessible: it can be read online.[1] The Robarts publication even contains a short essay on the Royal Proclamation in British Columbia. Although of course Keeping Promises is much more comprehensive and wide-ranging, given the editors’ expressed desire for accessibility, and the fact that Keeping Promises has two contributors in common with the Robarts Centre publication, this omission is all the more puzzling.


Miller, J.R. 2009. Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Smith, Melvin H. 1996. Our Home or Native Land? What Governments’ Aboriginal Policy is Doing to Canada. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing.

[1] http://robarts.info.yorku.ca/files/2012/02/CW_Fall2013Royal-P.pdf.

Keeping Promises: The Royal Proclamation of 1763, Aboriginal Rights, and Treaties in Canada
Terry Fenge and Jim Aldridge, editors
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2015. 296 pp. $34.95 paper