Does King George III's Royal Proclamation of 1763 – often referred to as the "Indian Magna Carta" – apply to Canada's Métis and non-status Indians in 2015? That's the question Canadian courts have been called upon to answer. The case, Daniels v. Canada, began to be heard at the Supreme Court last Thursday. The interests of about 600,000 people, and potentially huge financial obligations for the federal government, hang in the balance.
Back in 1763, the British government was trying to prevent the people of the 13 colonies – the people we now call Americans – from settling west of the Appalachian mountains and displacing the region's Indians. The Royal Proclamation recognized aboriginal title, and said that settlers could not take native land, though it could be bought by the Crown or acquired by treaty.
How do we now fulfill King George's promises, and those inherited by the government of Canada, 252 years later? And in living up to those obligations, are Métis and non-status Indians part of the group of people to whom the Constitution's promises to "Indians" apply?
There is a genealogy of constitutional doctrine, linking the Proclamation to the federal government of today, by way of the Constitution Act, 1867. It talks about the federal power to pass laws about "Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians." The Canadian Crown has obligations to the aboriginal peoples of Canada that in some way correspond to the federal Parliament's legislative power.
This case has now been through the Federal Court, heard by one judge, who ruled that Métis and non-status Indians fall under federal jurisdiction. On appeal, that ruling was only partly upheld by three judges at the Federal Court of Appeal – they decided that only Métis fell under federal jurisdiction, not non-status Indians. It is now being heard by the nine judges of the Supreme Court. They may choose to be more expansive in their thinking than the previous jurists.
The federal government, along the way, has argued that courts should not issue legal declarations that have no specific "utility." The government is worried, legitimately, that all too much "utility" – benefiting aboriginals but binding Ottawa and taxpayers – may ultimately result.
Depending on how the court rules, there could be a lot more litigation to come. In the next such lawsuit, will there be demands for large reserve-like territories for Métis and non-status Indians, carved out of Crown land or otherwise expropriated? Will there need to be greatly expanded government programs? Will non-status Indians recover their forebears' status on reserves, new or old or both?
The policy issues are legion. The nine judges who work at 301 Wellington Street, Ottawa, have to approach the case with a consciousness of both history and the future. The historical bargains must be respected. But the future of the country must not be unfairly constrained. It is not an easy balance.