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Justin Trudeau apologizes for the brutal hanging of tribal chiefs 150 years ago

Tsilhqot’in Nation members perform a drum ceremony on the floor of Canada’s House of Commons after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated six tribe members, hanged in 1865 for killing white settlers. (Justin Trudeau/Twitter)
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The sacred gift of tobacco arrived with the promise of peace.

Sent to the Tsilhqot’in people from the gold commissioner of the Colony of British Columbia, the gift and the letter were an invitation to diplomacy and peace. It was anything but that. It was a murderous trick. And it marked the beginning of a painful story that would be passed through generations of the Tsilhqot’in people for more than 150 years.

The year was 1864. That spring, white settlers had been building a road on Tsilhqot’in land, as part of an expedition in search of all the riches and gold that lay beneath it — but without Tsilhqot’in consent, angering the tribe. The threat of the spread of smallpox, which white men carried with them, loomed, as well.

Finally Tsilhquot’in war chiefs agreed on a course of action to protect their people and their land: ambushing the settlers, specifically members of a white road-building crew working on their territory.

To the chiefs, it was an act of war. To the settlers, it was murder.

The Tsilhqot’in people — one of Canada’s aboriginal First Nations, pronounced “chilcotin” — evaded capture by the vengeful British colonists for months, until one day the gift arrived with an offer of talks. The Tsilhqot’in war chiefs were to appear at the gold commissioner’s camp, where the peace talks would commence. They agreed.

Upon their arrival, five chiefs were arrested, imprisoned, hastily tried for murder of 14 settlers and hanged. The same fate awaited a sixth chief.

It was not until yesterday — 154 years later — that the peace promised to the Tsilhqot’in war chiefs arrived in full.

On the floor of the House of Commons on Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated all six of Tsilhqot’in chiefs, apologizing for more than a century of pain the government had caused their descendants and their nation. Past governments, Trudeau said, had refused to recognize that the colonial settlers had invaded and pilfered land that did not belong to them. He repeated the war chiefs’ famed protestation, made from their jail cells: “They meant war,” he said, “not murder.”

“They acted as leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation,” Trudeau said.

“We know that the exoneration and the apology we are making today on behalf of Canada cannot by itself repair the damage that has been done,” Trudeau said, “but it is my sincere hope that these words will allow for greater healing as Canada and the Tsilhqot’in nation continue on the shared journey towards reconciliation. At the same time, we would do well to acknowledge that for the Tsilhqot’in people, the events of 1864 and 1865 are not confined to history. As a people … the Tsilhqot’in have carried these events with them for more than a century-and-a-half. The actions of the government of the day have had a deep and lasting impact on the Tsilhqot’in nation and Canada.

“For the loss of that time and opportunity, we are truly sorry.”

The Canadian government’s reconciliation with the Tsilhqot’in Nation came in the years after the nation won a historic, decades-long legal battle over rights to its land, still in British Columbia.

As Trudeau said in his speech, the Tsilhquot’in people had never stopped fighting for their land in the decades after the Chilcotin War. In the 1980s, they took legal action when a logging company, with British Columbian authority, sought to chop down trees on their land — again without the nation’s consent. When negotiations between the government and the nation failed, Tsilhquot’in took its case to the courts in 1989.

The original trial didn’t begin until 1998 and moved at the pace of Charles Dickens’s Court of Chancery in “Bleak House,” lasting 339 days over five years. In 2014, the case made it to the Supreme Court of Canada: For the first time in the country’s history, the high court ruled that an aboriginal tribe did in fact have aboriginal title to their land, an unprecedented victory for the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

With the legal fight finished, the two nations began working toward a more diplomatic relationship. In January 2017, Canada and the Tsilhqot’in Nation signed a letter of understanding, one that promised a commitment to “renewing and strengthening their nation-to-nation relationship, and negotiating in good faith to achieve a lasting reconciliation for the Tsilhqot’in people.”

It also promised that, in the near future, Canada would seek to exonerate the six hanged Tsilhqot’in chiefs, following the lead of the government of British Columbia.

“The exoneration, as Tsilhqot’in people, that’s the first thing we’re ever taught: The betrayal that happened at the hands of government,” Tsilhqot’in Chief Joe Alphonse said after the ceremony. “The first order of business is to correct the wrongs of the past, and that starts with the exoneration that happened today. This is the start.”

Alphonse said that he hopes Trudeau’s promises bring a better path forward for the Tsilhqot’in people, who he said have faced challenges including racial discrimination, incarceration and displaced children, removed from their parents to state care.

“The first prejudice we’ve always faced from any sector always started from this place,” he said from the halls of the House of Commons. “From government. Government’s lack of respect shown to us spills over to every aspect of society, and we get the brunt of that over and over and over again. It’s time to change that.”

The day, Alphonse said, had been an emotional one. On the floor of the House of Commons, seven Tsilhqot’in members performed a traditional drum ceremony. One man pounding the drum wore native garb, while six gathered around him wore black vests. Midway through the drum song, they turned their vests inside out to reveal bright red, a symbol for renewal and rebirth.

“We’re a patient lot. We’re a very patient lot,” Alphonse said, when asked afterward to describe what it felt like to arrive at the moment. “One hundred fifty-four years it took us to get here, 154 years.”