In 1996, Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples published its monumental report. In Volume 1, 'Looking Forward, Looking Back', Chapter 5, the Commissioners sketched the development of contacts between the aboriginal peoples and Europeans:
'First contacts between Aboriginal peoples and Europeans were sporadic and apparently occurred about a thousand years ago when Norsemen proceeding from Iceland and Greenland are believed to have voyaged to the coast of North America... These early Norse voyages are believed to have continued until the 1340s, and to have included visits to Arctic areas...'
'Further intermittent commercial contacts ensued with other Europeans, as sailors of Basque, English, French and other nationalities came in search of natural resources such as timber, fish, furs, whale, walrus and polar bear...'
'Relations were established in a context in which Aboriginal peoples initially had the upper hand in population and in terms of their knowledge of the land and how to survive in it. These factors contributed to early patterns of co-operation and helped to overcome the colonial attitudes and pretensions the first European arrivals may originally have possessed...'
'The links between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies in this initial period of contact were primarily commercial and only secondarily political and military...'
'Politically, the initial period of contact was also one of mutual recognition, whereby Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies appear, however reluctantly at times, to have determined that the best course of action was to treat the other as a political equal in most important respects...'
'With declining Aboriginal populations and ever-increasing European immigration to the New World, the numerical balance between the two groups gradually shifted during this first period of relations between them. By the latter part of the 1700s, in fact, it is estimated that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people were roughly equal in numbers.
During the 1700s, wars between the French and the British, in particular, placed a premium, for both groups, on securing alliances with Indian nations. New France fell to British forces and was ceded to the Crown in 1763. The Royal Commissioners write that, by that time, "Aboriginal/English relations had stabilised to the point where they could be seen to be grounded in two fundamental principles." '
'Under the first principle, Aboriginal peoples were generally recognised as autonomous political units capable of having treaty relations with the Crown...'
'A second principle emerged from British practice. This acknowledged that Aboriginal nations were entitled to the territories in their possession unless, or until, they ceded them away...'
'In 1763, "the British government adopted the somewhat unusual measure of issuing a royal proclamation declaring, in resounding terms the basic tenets of British policy toward the Indian nations" '.
'When the American colonies won independence from Britain as the United States of America, much of those basic tenets were retained, and received some judicial recognition in "the Marshall cases" decided by the Supreme Court in the 1820s and 1830s.'
'While developments in the 19th century led to a shift to a more colonial relationship between the settler societies and the aboriginal peoples, the starting point had been characterised by a degree of respect for the political and territorial rights of the Indians of North America which were not matched in the settlement of the Australian colonies.'
Keywords: Canada, european contact, First Nations Canada, indigenous people, native American, native title, New World, Nunavat, property law, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Royal Proclamation of 1763, treaties, United States of America
Courtesy of the Privy Council Office, Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1999.
Author: Nettheim, Garth
Source: 'People to People, Nation to Nation: Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples', 1996, p 125