Towards the Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation: Short in-class discussion exercise for Constitutional Law

Royal Proclamation of 1763

Patricia Cochran
Faculty of Law
University of Victoria

This is a description of and reflection on an in-class exercise I did with a group of 115 students studying constitutional law.  The exercise asked the students to respond to the TRC’s call for the creation of a Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation.

Call to Action 45 reads in part:

45. We call upon the Government of Canada, on behalf of all Canadians, to jointly develop with Aboriginal peoples a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown. The proclamation would build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764, and reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown.

In this exercise, I invited students to work together to address some preliminary issues that would need to be addressed in order to move forward with this recommendation.


At my institution, constitutional law is a year-long, mandatory, first-year course that aims to introduce students to important constitutional law issues, and to provide students with a substantive and methodological foundation on which to further study the constitution in the future.  We meet for 1 hr and 20 minutes twice a week.  This year, the first four classes of the term were devoted to exploring questions around the sources of Canadian constitutional law and how those sources relate to each other.  In particular, we focused on the complicated questions of sovereignty, jurisdiction, and the history of Indigenous-Crown relations.  I assigned excerpts from:

  • the final RCAP report,
  • books by Jeremy Webber and John Borrows,
  • SCC decisions including Guerin and Tsilhqot’in.

borrows book

One key element of the course is participation in an online Reading Journal.  Throughout the year, students are asked to write a certain number of reflections (this year, 8) on the text we read, before we discuss them in class.  The journal entries are not evaluated on their content, only on the fact of their completion.  As an instructor, I find reading these journals an invaluable part of my teaching practice; they reveal to me common questions, themes, points of confusion and the amazing range of connections that students make to their other academic training, community work, and life experiences.

Class objectives

In the fourth class of the term, we addressed the difficulties that arise for Canadian constitutionalism when we squarely face the question of how Canadian law applies in this land at all.  Presented with the history of Canadian law and the inability of colonial law to justify itself on many of its own terms, students often see a crisis of legitimacy or a paradox.  This inherent tension is perhaps nowhere more starkly presented that in paragraph 69 of the Tsihqot’in  decision:

[69]      The starting point in characterizing the legal nature of Aboriginal title is Dickson J.’s concurring judgment in Guerin, discussed earlier.  At the time of assertion of European sovereignty, the Crown acquired radical or underlying title to all the land in the province.  This Crown title, however, was burdened by the pre-existing legal rights of Aboriginal people who occupied and used the land prior to European arrival.  The doctrine of terra nullius (that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty) never applied in Canada, as confirmed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763.  The Aboriginal interest in land that burdens the Crown’s underlying title is an independent legal interest, which gives rise to a fiduciary duty on the part of the Crown.

In this class session, I aimed to provide ways for students to address this tension/crisis/paradox directly, and (drawing on the SCC’s reasoning in the Quebec Secession Reference and scholars such as Webber and Borrows) to think about ways in which constitutional law is a complex process for facilitating relationships.  Also, perhaps more than anything, I wanted to provide a way for students to hold in view a serious, foundational critique of the legitimacy of Canadian constitutional law, without seeing as inevitable a cynical, thin or purely instrumental understanding of what law is and its role in society.

To that end, I devoted the last 20 minutes of the class to a small discussion exercise addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for the creation of a Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation.  My goal for this exercise was to orient students to the future and the ongoing relationships in which they participate.

In-class preparation

To prepare students to do the exercise, I spent about 20 minutes discussing the argument offered by John Borrows in Chapter 1 of Canada’s Indigenous Constitution.  I also spent about 20 minutes addressing, in very general terms, three legal theoretical concerns that I drew out of the questions and comments raised by students in their Reading Journals.  I wrote three sets of terms on the board, and under each set of terms, articulated for the full group several questions that were raised privately by students in their journals.




Under the first set of terms, we discussed law’s disputed relationships to violence, force and power.  I discussed arguments that law and force are mutually exclusive concepts (referencing the students’ exposure to legal positivism in their introductory legal process course), and arguments that legal structures are simply institutional articulations of political power relations.

Under the second set of terms, we discussed the potential usefulness of thinking about legal obligations as different from other kinds of obligations (here, drawing on an earlier class discussion of the Guerin case).  I identified the concerns about the conceptual indefinability of “law” (if everything is “law,” nothing is), as well as the history of using the boundaries of “law” to identify certain people as having none.

Under the third set of terms, I talked about legal claims as distinct from other kinds of “factual” claims.  Again drawing on Webber and Borrows, I described the possibility of understanding law a rhetorical practice, in which descriptive modes of speaking may simultaneously be exhortatory, aspirational, and future-oriented.  I emphasized for students the contested nature of that approach, inviting them to work on developing their own view.

webber book

Discussion exercise on the Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation

Against that background, I invited students to work in groups of four to take up the TRC’s Call to Action 45.  I gave them only the first paragraph of the Call, leaving out the list of items that the Commission saw as important elements to include.  My rationale was to make sure students did not feel bound by that list, or distracted by the fact that most of its elements would be unfamiliar to them (not yet having studied s. 35, for example).

I acknowledged, and urged students to appreciate, that in order to meaningfully respond to this Call to Action, far more knowledge would be required and radically different processes would be needed.  Thus, I did not ask them to draft a new Royal Proclamation, but rather to address some preliminary questions.  The exercise directed as follows:

Drawing on the course materials in constitutional law so far, discuss this Call to Action with your group and create a record of your conversation on a large paper.

Consider the following questions:

1.     What form might such a Proclamation take? What would it look like?  (Format? Languages? Long or short? Detailed or general? Etc.)

2.     What are some of the substantive issues or themes that you would expect to find addressed in this Proclamation?

3.     What kinds of processes would be required to respond meaningfully to this Call to Action? (Who would participate? What knowledge and expertise would be required? Whose interests are at stake?)

In responding to these questions, you may find it useful to consider questions such as:

  • What would the scholars we have engaged with so far include in the Proclamation?  What would Webber think, what would Borrows think?  In what ways might they disagree?
  • How do your ideas for the Proclamation relate to the historical accounts offered by RCAP?
  • How does your discussion relate the new Proclamation to existing constitutional texts such as the Royal Proclamation 1763,  Constitution Act 1867, Constitution Act 1982
  • Is your new Proclamation consistent with Guerin? With Tsilhqot’in? Or does it change the law?  Does it take a form that can achieve that change?

To engage in this exercise, students were provided with 11 x 17 sized papers and coloured markers.  I gave them around 15 minutes to work on the three questions, to make notes on the papers, and then post their work around the room.  For the final 5 minutes, students walked around to read their colleagues responses.



Most student groups organized their notes according to the three questions posed, listing elements they discussed under each theme.  As expected, a large range of issues were discussed.  The prompt about language yielded an unexpected (to me) amount of conversation, with numerous groups exploring how to make their Proclamation equally authoritative and/or accessible in multiple languages.

On reflection, I believe the exercise achieved its core objective of providing students with an outlet for future-oriented thinking in constitutional law.  The largest drawback I observed relates to the basic tension I often experience in teaching a broad, introductory course, and that is the question of whether it is more pedagogically effective to begin from concepts or from context.  This exercise, presented so early on in the course and in such a short time, tended towards engagement with abstract concepts rather than the rich, real context of questions around sovereignty.  This made the exercise accessible, and served the objective of encouraging critical thought around basic concepts such as sovereignty.  However, it also encouraged a broad and sometimes superficial engagement, with many student groups speaking in general terms about justice and equality, with little attention to the real nature of the dilemma.  (For example, no student group noted whether their proposal contemplated a change to the law, or distinguished between actions that would have to be taken by federal and provincial governments, Indigenous governments, Canadian courts, civil society, etc.).  In some ways, the goal of the exercise was undercut to the extent that it allowed students to make sweeping claims about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the Canadian constitutional order, without grounding those claims in legal or political context, or accounting for the implications of such claims.  This observation leads me to think that the value of an exercise such as this may be in its potential as part of a larger, iterative process.  Repeated again near the end of constitutional law, this exercise might allow students to draw together their forward-looking aspirations with a more concrete sense of its context and implications.

I will try some version of this exercise again in the future, with a view to framing constitutional law as a potential site for transforming relationships between Indigenous and settler peoples and legal orders, and individuals and communities as active agents in the creation of constitutional law.


John Borrows, Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Jeremy Webber, The Constitution of Canada: A Contextual Analysis (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2015).

Guerin v The Queen, [1984] 2 SCR 335.

Reference Re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 SCR 217.

Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, 2014 SCC 44.

Information about the Royal Proclamation of 1763 from UBC Indigenous Foundations:




Teaching the 94 Calls to Action in the Classroom

Elder Butch Dick, offering words of welcome (photo credit: Carol Liao)


This year, as part of the Legal Process course at UVic, we took two days in January, (cancelled all other first year law classes) and brought the students back into their Legal Process groups to spend some concentrated time on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s “94 Calls to Action.”

What follows is first a description of what we did over the two days, and then some comments on how these materials could be adapted for use more generally.


  • On the first morning (a 3 hour block), we had a panel of 6 speakers. The goal was, in an embodied way, to introduce our students to the history and context for the establishment of the TRC, including the history and legacy of Residential Schools.  Here is the agenda for the day Agenda for Jan 20 – Day 1 panel  (sorry…it will come up on its side, so you may have to rotate it to read it).  In brief, we had:
    • a Welcome to the territories by Songhees Elder Butch Dick, Artist and Educator
    • Tla-o-qui-aht Elder Barney Williams Jr, member of the TRC Indian Residential School Survivor Committee
    • Karla Point, Hesquiaht First Nation and UVic Cultural Support Coordinator
    • UVic (law) Prof Rebecca Johnson, giving an overview of the legal history leading to the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action [See below for more on this]
    • Ry Moran, Director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
    • Aimee Craft, Director of Research, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
    • UVic (visual anthropology) Prof Andrea Walsh, speaking about the process of repatriating children’s art from a provincial residential school
    • UVic Chancellor Shelagh Rogers, Honorary Witness to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • On the second morning (another 3 hour block), following a short debrief of the day before, the students worked in small groups on a set of exercises aimed at introducing them working collaboratively and individually with the 94 Calls, with the goal being, in part, developing fluency with the content (that is, just knowing what is IN the document).  Here is a copy of the exercise handout.TRC 2016 assignment handout.  Here is a copy of the instructor notes that were distributed to the teachers facilitating the small group work.  Instructor notes for TRC session-jan19


Because these two days were part of a mandatory course, attendance was expected for the two days (for students who were unable to make one session or there other, there was an alternative exercise).  While this was mandatory, we did not want to create more work for either faculty or students:  we wanted a space to do some work, but not in a way that would be overwhelming.  Indeed, the focus was in large measure not on the entire history of residential schools, but on the 94 Calls to Action.

  • We did NOT ask them to read anything in advance, nor did we give them any additional readings about the TRC or its history. We presume that there will be much to do on this front over the course of the students’ education.  At THIS point, we wanted to work exclusively with the 12 page document that is the TRC Calls to Action.
  • To set the context, there was some coordination with first year profs early in the year/term, so that all the students had already had a few lectures relating to issues emerging in the TRC Calls to Action [including a lecture in Criminal law on the Kikkik case, and Inuit relocations; a lecture in Constitutional law on the history of Govt/Indigenous relations leading up to the establishment of residential schools]
  • The first day panel was an intense experience, in a good way.  We had struggled in advance over the question of whether or not to ask someone to come speak with us about their residential school experience. On the one hand was the worry that Indigenous folks are all too often asked to share in contexts that are very exacting (that is, I was not wanting to do more damage).  On the other hand, people pointed out the real importance of having space made for those voices, and of letting others make the decisions.  Certainly, Barney and Karla’s participation was a crucial part of the experience.  As many students noted afterwards, it is one thing to have read about things.  It is a very different experience to be physically present with someone who speaks to their experience.  This was a super helpful piece of situating WHY the TRC Calls to Action matter so profoundly.
  • Part of the goal for the second day small group work was to enable them to meet up again with the groups with whom they had spent the first two weeks of law school.  It was also designed to be more practical and hands on — to look concretely at the text of the 94 calls, and to have a chance to work with them collaboratively with others.
  • In addition to ‘attendance’/participation in the group work, the “assignment” was two small pieces of reflective (non-graded) writing:  at the end of each of the two days, students were to submit a post to a blog (set up so that no one but the teacher would see their comments).  They could put down anything they wanted in terms of responses/comments/thoughts/questions.  The piece would show up as complete/incomplete based on simply the submission of text, and there were no marks for brilliance, nor content. The point was to create a space for reflective thinking, focus on the process of thinking, not on the substance of the thought.


These materials were later adapted for use in the context of an upper year Criminal Law seminar course, using two class sessions.

  1. The first class session was in the nature of a lecture/powerpoint, setting up the legal context that resulted in the TRC Calls to Action.  Attached is the powerpoint, which people should feel free to use/modify/adapt, etc. [TRC powerpoint-for sharing]  I have a longer draft narrative text which walks a person through the powerpoint.  I also have an audio file from the talk for Legal Process.  If you want a copy of either, email me at  I am happy to pass them along.  The point is to introduce students to the largest class-action in Canadian history (the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement – IRSSA), and to have them see the structure of the settlement agreement.  This helps to make visible who is and who is not covered by the IRSSA.
  2. For ‘homework’ after the first session, hand out copies of the TRC 94 Calls to Action (the document is only 12 pages long), and ask them to read it through, and highlight “The federal government” every time they see it mentioned.  While the feds are not the only actors, they ARE a party to the Settlement Agreement (IRSSA).  Thus, the highlighting helps to make visible the sections that speak to their particular obligations.  Highlighting the document also helps the students see more clearly how many other parties are present in the document.  The other reason to have them highlight is to help with the reading (having a task helps ground the reading, so that eyes don’t just slide over the text and out of focus).
  3. The second class session involves working with the same assignment we used for Legal Process.  Here it is. TRC 2016 assignment handout.  And here are the instructor notes  Instructor notes for TRC session-jan19.  But, in brief:
    • The first exercise focuses on Recommendations 1-42.  The goal in each case is not to have students ‘debate’ the recommendations, or consider IF they should be adopted (that would be OK too, but would be a different exercise than the one we used here), but is rather to spend the time trying to ask [in a very descriptive way] what a working group might do, if they were working for a government who was committed to acting on the Calls to Action.  The goal is to imagine a space that is actively affirmative and committed to reconciliation.
    • It  helps to divide students into 5 different groups (Justice, Education, Health, Language and Culture, Child Welfare), so each group is only focusing on a handful of recommendations.  It also helps for them to have flip chart paper to work on [part of the goal is to also provide a chance for collaborative work and discussion], with plenty of coloured pens.  Remind them as they map out strategies to also be including the section numbers.  The goal is less for them to SOLVE problems, than to be able to describe the sections, and identify the kinds of verbs and parties involved.  For the exercise, we asked them to imagine themselves as the federal government.  But many recommendations are aimed at other parties, or are collaborative.  So the goal was also for them to think about the mechanisms they would need to put in place to build relations with the other parties they are to be collaborating with.  It was helpful (when touching base with the groups as they work) to keep reminding them to think about questions like “division of powers”, and “cooperative federalism”, and also about resources OTHER than money.  If they work on flip charts, you can hang them up, so that they can move around to see what the other groups have come up with, which can help in identifying themes.
    • The second exercise (10 different possible questions to work on) was designed to focus on Recommendations 43-94.  These questions again presume people in the community, and don’t require the student to imagine themselves as a lawyer.  They can be providing information more generally based on their knowledge.  The goal is to help an interested person locate sections that may be of interest, and to think about creative solutions.  Here, try to focus them in on finding recommendations that might be drawn up even where they don’t require action (that is, consider that there are recommendations that might serve as inspiration for people wanting to take steps, rather than seeing them only as obligations to  be met or avoided).  This approach makes it easier for them to read the sections with a sense of who is invited in, and the kinds of actions of reconciliation that might be imagined.

The above was one way of introducing the 94 Calls to Action into an upper year crim law class.  Given the breadth of the calls, it is hopefully clear that one might just as easily do this in the context of many other law school classes.  Indeed, it is also possible to do this with high school or general community groups, adapting the materials both to the time available, and the particular interests of the group.